NASA has failed to find any evidence that Mars’ atmosphere is supporting life after a year roaming the surface of the Red Planet, it was revealed today.
The Curiosity rover currently scanning the Red Planet has not detected any methane, a gas that is produced by living things.
Since landing in Gale Crater last year, every morning and evening Curiosity has analyzed Mars’ air and scanned it with a tiny laser in search of the greenhouse gas.
Not finding it means that it is unlikely that microbes capable of producing the gas are living below the planet’s surface, scientists said today.
NASA had high hopes that the rover would inhale methane after orbiting spacecraft and Earth-based telescopes detected plumes of the gas several years ago.
On Earth, most of the gas is a by-product of life, spewed when animals digest or plants decay.
“If you had microbial life somewhere on Mars that was really healthy and cranking away, you might see some of the signatures of that in the atmosphere,” said mission scientist Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
The Curiosity rover currently scanning the Red Planet has not detected any methane, a gas that is produced by living things
During Curiosity’s first eight months on the red planet, it probed the air during the day and at night as the season changed from spring to summer.
“Every time we looked, we never saw it,” said Christopher Webster, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who led the research published online in the journal Science.
Christopher Webster said while the result was “disappointing in many ways”, the hunt for the elusive gas continues. While methane is linked to living things, it can also be made by non-biological processes.
Mars today is a hostile place – extremely dry and constantly bombarded by radiation. Billions of years ago, the planet boasted a thicker atmosphere and possible lakes. Scientists generally agree that nothing can exist on the Martian surface at present since it’s too toxic. If there are living things on Mars, scientists theorize they’re likely underground.
Just because Curiosity didn’t detect methane near its landing site doesn’t mean the gas is not present elsewhere on the planet, said Bill Nye, chief executive of the Planetary Society, a space advocacy group.
“Suppose you’re an alien coming to Earth and you landed in the Four Corners area, would you feel as if you’ve explored the Earth?” he said.
Several years ago, scientists became excited at the prospect of methane-producing microbes after Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center noticed a mysterious belch of methane from three regions in Mars’ western hemisphere.
Michael Mumma, who had no role in the latest study, said he stood by his observations.
Earlier this month, Curiosity reached its first rest stop in its long trek toward Mount Sharp, a mountain rising from Gale Crater near the equator. The rover will take monthly readings of the Martian atmosphere during the road trip, expected to last almost a year.
Curiosity probe previously found evidence of an ancient environment that could have once been suitable for microscopic life. While the latest finding diminishes hope for present-day life, scientists still hope to uncover signs of ancient life by looking for organic compounds at the base of Mount Sharp.
A new research presented at the Goldschmidt Meeting in Florence, Italy, say that life may have started on Mars before arriving on Earth.
The research supports an idea that the Red Planet was a better place to kick-start biology billions of years ago than the early Earth was.
The evidence is based on how the first molecules necessary for life were assembled.
Details of the theory were outlined by Prof. Steven Benner at the Goldschmidt Meeting.
Scientists have long wondered how atoms first came together to make up the three crucial molecular components of living organisms: RNA, DNA and proteins.
The molecules that combined to form genetic material are far more complex than the primordial “pre-biotic” soup of organic (carbon-based) chemicals thought to have existed on the Earth more than three billion years ago, and RNA (ribonucleic acid) is thought to have been the first of them to appear.
Simply adding energy such as heat or light to the more basic organic molecules in the “soup” does not generate RNA. Instead, it generates tar.
New research supports an idea that the Red Planet was a better place to kick-start biology billions of years ago than the early Earth was
RNA needs to be coaxed into shape by “templating” atoms at the crystalline surfaces of minerals.
The minerals most effective at templating RNA would have dissolved in the oceans of the early Earth, but would have been more abundant on Mars, according to Prof. Steven Benner.
This could suggest that life started on Mars before being transported to Earth on meteorites, argues Prof. Steven Benner, of the Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology in Gainesville, US.
The idea that life originated on Mars and was then transported to our planet has been mooted before. But Prof. Steven Benner’s ideas add another twist to the theory of a Martian origin for the terrestrial biosphere.
Here in Florence, Prof. Steven Benner presented results that suggest minerals containing the elements boron and molybdenum are key in assembling atoms into life-forming molecules.
The researcher points out that boron minerals help carbohydrate rings to form from pre-biotic chemicals, and then molybdenum takes that intermediate molecule and rearranges it to form ribose, and hence RNA.
This raises problems for how life began on Earth, since the early Earth is thought to have been unsuitable for the formation of the necessary boron and molybdenum minerals.
It is thought that the boron minerals needed to form RNA from pre-biotic soups were not available on early Earth in sufficient quantity, and the molybdenum minerals were not available in the correct chemical form.
Prof. Seven Benner explained: “It’s only when molybdenum becomes highly oxidised that it is able to influence how early life formed.
“This form of molybdenum couldn’t have been available on Earth at the time life first began, because three billion years ago, the surface of the Earth had very little oxygen, but Mars did.
“It’s yet another piece of evidence which makes it more likely life came to Earth on a Martian meteorite, rather than starting on this planet.”
Early Mars is also thought to have had a drier environment, and this is also crucial to its favorable location for life’s origins.
NASA’s old Opportunity rover on Mars has just made what may be one of its most significant discoveries to date.
Nine-year-old Opportunity rover has identified rock laden with what scientists believe to be clay minerals.
Their presence is an indication that the rock, dubbed Esperance, has been altered at some point in the past through prolonged contact with water.
Opportunity has seen a clay-bearing outcrop before but scientists say this is by far the best example to date.
“It’s very rich,” said Steve Squyres, the rover’s principal investigator.
“We’ve been discovering evidence for water on Mars since we first landed back in 2004. What’s different here?
“If you look at all of the water-related discoveries that have been made by Opportunity, the vast majority of them point to water that was a very low pH – it was acid.
“We run around talking about water on Mars. In fact, what Opportunity has mostly discovered, or found evidence for, was sulphuric acid.
“Clay minerals only tend to form at a more neutral pH. This is water you could drink. This is water that was much more favorable for things like pre-biotic chemistry – the kind of chemistry that could lead to the origin of life.”
Opportunity Mars rover discovers Esperance rock with signs of water
Prof. Steve Squyres, who is affiliated to Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, said he was inclined to put Esperance in his personal top five discoveries made on Mars by Opportunity and her twin rover, Spirit, which stopped working in 2011.
The clays are aluminium-rich, possibly of the type montmorillonite. However, because Opportunity’s X-ray spectrometer can only discern the atomic elements in a rock, and not their mineralogical arrangement, no-one can say for sure.
Nonetheless, the mere occurrence of clays is further proof that the Red Planet was much warmer and wetter billions of years ago; a very different place to the cold, desiccated world it has become.
And these results complement nicely those of NASA’s newer rover Curiosity, which has also identified clays at its landing site almost half-way around the planet’s equator.
The old robot made its find at a location called Cape York, which is sited on the rim of a 22 km-wide crater known as Endurance.
Mission managers have now commanded it to start moving along the ridge to a destination dubbed Solander Point.
There is an expectation that Opportunity will find a deeper stack of rocks at the new location to follow up the Esperance water story.
“Maybe [we can] try to reconstruct the actual depositional environment of these materials and whether they were lacustrine – that is, formed by a lake – or fluvial (river) or an alluvial fan (network of streams), or whatever,” said deputy principal investigator Ray Arvidson, of Washington University, St Louis.
Opportunity is now operating well beyond its expected lifetime.
When it landed at Eagle Crater in January 2004, NASA hoped to get at least 90 working Martian days (sols) from the machine. Remarkably, it continues to roll beyond 3,300 sols.
It has an “arthritic” robotic arm, its solar panels are losing efficiency, and it drives backwards to save wear on its locomotion system.
Opportunity is also now having to contend with glitchy flash memory. But NASA is determined to keep pushing the vehicle for as long as possible.
“Remember, the rover continues in a very hostile environment on Mars,” said John Callas, NASA’s Opportunity project manager.
“The rover could have a catastrophic failure at any moment. So, each day is a gift.”
Scientists have found definitive proof that many of the landscapes seen on Mars were indeed cut by flowing water.
The valleys, channels and deltas viewed from orbit have long been thought to be the work of water erosion, but it is NASA’s latest rover, Curiosity, that has provided the “ground truth”.
Researchers report its observations of rounded pebbles on the floor of the Red Planet’s 100 mile-wide Gale Crater.
Their smooth appearance is identical to gravels found in rivers on Earth.
Rock fragments that bounce along the bottom of a stream of water will have their edges knocked off, and when these pebbles finally come to rest they will often align in a characteristic overlapping fashion.
Curiosity has pictured these features in a number of rock outcrops at the base of Gale Crater.
It is confirmation that water has played its part in sculpting not only this huge equatorial bowl but by implication many of the other landforms seen on the planet.
“For decades, we have speculated and hypothesized that the surface of Mars was carved by water, but this is the first time where you can see the remnants of stream flow with what are absolutely tell-tale signs,” said Dr. Rebecca Williams from the Planetary Science Institute.
Mars valleys, channels and deltas viewed from orbit have long been thought to be the work of water erosion
NASA first announced the discovery of the pebbles in September last year, barely seven weeks after Curiosity had landed in Gale.
Researchers have since been studying the robot’s pictures in more detail and have now written up a report for Science magazine – the first scholarly paper from the surface mission to make it into print; and the study reinforces the initial interpretation.
It describes the nature of the outcrops, and estimates the probable conditions in which their sediments were laid down.
The pebbles range in size from about two to 40 mm in diameter – too big to have been blown along by the wind.
These clasts, as scientists will often call them, are cemented together in a sandy matrix to make a rock type referred to as a conglomerate.
In many places, the clasts are touching each other, and the pictures show examples of so-called imbrication – an arrangement where elongated pebbles stack like a row of toppled dominos. It is a classic sign of past river activity.
Precisely dating landforms on Mars is not possible, but the rock outcrops seen by the rover are almost certainly more than three billion years old.
Curiosity’s pictures have enabled the team to make some informed statements about the speed and depth of the water that once flowed across the crater floor.
The pebbles come in a variety of dark and light shades, further indicating that they have been eroded from different rock types and transported from different locations.
Using its Chemcam remote-sensing laser, the rover was able to detect feldspar in the lighter toned clasts.
Feldspar is a common mineral on Earth that weathers quickly in the presence of water.
This suggests past conditions were not overly wet and that the pebbles were carried only a relatively short distance – probably no more than 10-15km.
This fits with satellite observations of what appears to be a nearby network of old rivers or streams spreading away from the mouth of a channel that cuts through the northern rim of Gale Crater.
This valley – or Peace Vallis as it is known – is the probable route down which the water flowed and later dumped its load of rounded gravels.
Curiosity is due to drive back on itself in the coming weeks as it makes for the big peak, Mount Sharp, at the centre of the crater.
Scientists hope this will take the vehicle past similar rock outcrops so that additional pictures can be obtained.
Just two weeks after landing its Curiosity rover on Mars, NASA has announced it will send another robot to the planet in 2016.
The InSight spacecraft will be a static lander that will carry instruments to investigate Mars’ deep interior.
Scientists say this will give them a clearer idea of how the rocky planets formed – the Earth included.
InSight beat two other proposals in a competition to find NASA’s next relatively low-cost mission.
This so-called Discovery class of endeavor is cost-capped at $425 million (345 million euros), although that figure does not include the rocket to launch the spacecraft.
InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.
It will be led from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
The design of the lander leans heavily on the successful Phoenix probe put on the Red Planet in 2008. But although the 2016 venture will look very similar, it will carry very different instrumentation.
A seismic experiment will listen for “marsquakes” and use this information to map the boundaries between the rock layers inside Earth’s neighbor.
It will determine if the planet has a liquid or solid core, and provide some clues as to why its surface is not divided up into tectonic plates as on Earth.
Just two weeks after landing its Curiosity rover on Mars, NASA has announced it will send InSight robot to the planet in 2016
Key components of this package will come from France and the UK.
InSight will also push a German-built thermal probe into the surface to gauge Mars’ temperature profile. This will reveal how the planet is cooling.
JPL will provide the two cameras on InSight and a robotic arm.
It will also deliver another sensor that will very accurately determine the degree to which the planet wobbles on its axis.
All the data combined will inform researchers about the internal state of Mars today and how it has changed through the eons.
“This is science that has been compelling for many years,” said John Grunsfeld, who heads up NASA’s science division.
“Seismology, for instance, is the standard method by which we’ve learned to understand the interior of the Earth – and we have no such knowledge for Mars.
“This has been something the principal investigator (JPL’s Bruce Banerdt) of this mission has been trying to get to Mars for nearly three decades, and so I’m really thrilled that this is now at a mature stage where he has been able to propose something that fits within the cost and schedule constraints of the Discovery programme.”
It is clear from surface features that the Red Planet was much more geologically active in the past. The remains of the largest volcano in the Solar System – Olympus Mons – can be seen on Mars.
When and why this activity waned remains to be established, but it is an issue that plays directly to the question of life on the planet.
Earth retains an atmosphere and water at its surface because of the protective magnetic field generated in its liquid iron/nickel core.
At some point, Mars lost its global magnetic shield and that allowed the stream of particles billowing away from the Sun – the “solar wind” – to strip away the planet’s atmosphere, leading to the loss also of its surface water. This change may have stifled any chance for life to establish itself on Mars.
NASA is currently basking in the success of its Curiosity rover, which landed on the planet two weeks ago. That mission, by comparison, is costing $2.5 billion (2 billion euros).
The space agency says the InSight selection was made before the six-wheeled vehicle touched down and so was not influenced in any way by recent events.
The outlook for American Mars scientists now looks considerably brighter than it did at the beginning of the year.
Back in February, they were told NASA’s budget for Red Planet exploration would be cut back sharply; and many feared that if Curiosity was lost during its risky landing, they might not see another US-led Martian lander for perhaps 10 years.
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity has zapped its first Martian rock.
Curiosity rover fired its ChemCam laser at a tennis-ball-sized stone lying about 2.5 m away on the ground.
The brief but powerful burst of light from the instrument vaporized the surface of the rock, revealing details of its basic chemistry.
This was just target practice for ChemCam, proving it is ready to begin the serious business of investigating the geology of the Red Planet.
It is part of a suite of instruments on the one-ton robot, which landed two weeks ago in a deep equatorial depression known as Gale Crater.
Over the course of one Martian year, Curiosity will try to determine whether past environments at its touchdown location could ever have supported life.
The US-French ChemCam instrument will be a critical part of that investigation, helping to select the most interesting objects for study.
The inaugural target of the laser was a 7 cm-wide rock dubbed “Coronation” (previously N165).
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity has zapped its first Martian rock
It had no particular science value, and was expected to be just another lump of ubiquitous Martian basalt, a volcanic rock.
Its appeal was the nice smooth face it offered to the laser.
ChemCam zapped it with 30 pulses of infrared light during a 10-second period.
Each pulse delivered to a tiny spot more than a million watts of power for about five billionths of a second.
The instrument observed the resulting spark through a telescope; the component colors would have told scientists which atomic elements were present.
“We got a great spectrum of Coronation – lots of signal,” said ChemCam principal investigator Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico.
“Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it’s pay-off time.”
One aspect being considered by the team is whether the signal changed slightly as the laser burrowed through any exterior layers that might have coated Coronation.
“Coatings can tell you about, say, the weather or what has happened to a rock through the eons,” said Dr. Rogers Wiens last week.
“We will look at the first few laser shots and see if there is any difference as we move further into the rock.”
The British company e2v provided the imaging sensor behind the ChemCam telescope that routes the light signal, via optical fibres, to the onboard spectrometer which does the chemical analysis.
The charge-coupled device (CCD) was specially prepared for the instrument to increase its sensitivity.
“The scientists always want to see more, but they want to see more without cost to performance,” said e2v’s Jon Kemp.
“Our process was able to almost double the signal to noise ratio.”
The first science target for ChemCam will be bedrock exposed on the ground next to Curiosity by the rocket-powered crane used to lower the vehicle to the crater floor on 6 August (GMT).
Exhaust from this descent stage scattered surface grit and pebbles to reveal a harder, compact material underneath.
The crane made four scour marks in the ground – two either side of the rover. These have been dubbed Burnside, Goulburn, Hepburn and Sleepy Dragon – names taken from ancient rock formations in Canadian North America.
Goulburn Scour will be zapped by ChemCam once the mission team has reviewed fully the Coronation performance and results.
NASA’s Curiosity rover has lifted its mast and used its high navigation cameras for the first time.
The robot vehicle has returned black and white images that capture part of its own body, its shadow on the ground and views off to the horizon.
Spectacular relief – the rim cliffs of the crater in which the rover landed – can be seen in the distance.
Curiosity – also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, MSL – put down on the Red Planet on Monday (GMT).
The NASA mission came to rest on the floor of a deep depression on Mars’ equator known as Gale Crater, close to a 5.5 km-high mountain.
The plan eventually is to take the robot to the base of this mountain where it is expected to find rocks that were laid down billions of years ago in the presence of liquid water.
Curiosity rover on Mars has returned black and white images that capture part of its own body, its shadow on the ground and views off to the horizon
Curiosity will probe these sediments for evidence that past environments on Mars could once have favored microbial life.
Since its landing, engineers have been running through a list of health checks and equipment tests.
These have included deploying a high-gain antenna to provide a data link to Earth additional to the UHF satellite relays it uses most of the time. This antenna failed to point correctly at first, but the problem has now been fixed.
The mast was stowed for the journey to Mars, lying flat on the deck of the rover.
Raising it into the vertical was the main task of Sol 2 – the second full Martian day of surface operations.
Locked in the upright position, the masthead and its cameras stand some 2m above the ground.
Curiosity has two pairs of black and white, greyscale, navigation cameras which can acquire stereo imagery to help the rover pick a path across the surface.
These Navcams sit just to the side of two science cameras – one wideangle, one telephoto. It is these Mastcams that will provide the really exquisite, true color views of the Martian landscape. We should see something of their output following Sol 3.
Most of the pictures we have seen so far have been low-resolution thumbnails – easy to downlink. But we are now starting to get one or two hi-res versions also.
Mike Malin, the principal investigator on Mardi (Mars Descent Imager), has released a detailed view taken of the heatshield as it fell away from the rover’s capsule during Monday’s entry descent and landing (EDL).
Eventually hundreds of Mardi pictures will be run together to make a movie of the descent.
With the rover now on the ground and Mardi still pointing downwards, Mike Malin has also got a good shot of the gravel surface under the vehicle.
One instrument on the rover has already had a chance to gather some data. This is the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD).
Indeed, this instrument has acquired quite a lot of data so far, as it was working for periods even during the rover’s cruise to Mars.
It is endeavoring to characterize the flux of high-energy atomic and subatomic particles reaching Mars from the Sun and distant exploded stars.
This radiation would be hazardous to any microbes alive on the planet today, but would also constitute a threat to the health of any future astronauts on the Red Planet.
In other news, NASA reports it has now found more components of the landing system discarded by the rover during EDL.
These are a set of six tungsten blocks that the rover’s capsule ejected to shift its centre of mass and help guide its flight through the atmosphere.
Satellite imagery has identified the line of craters these blocks made when they slammed into the ground about 12 km from Curiosity’s eventual landing position.
NASA has also confirmed the precise timing of Monday’s touchdown.
The rover’s computer put this at 05:17:57 UTC on Mars. With a one-way light-travel time of 13 minutes and 48 seconds to cover the 250 million km to Earth, this equates to a receive time here at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of 05:31:45 UTC (GMT).
The Curiosity rover remains perfectly on course to make its Monday (GMT) landing on the Red Planet, NASA says.
The NASA robot’s flight trajectory is so good engineers cancelled the latest course correction they had planned.
To be sure of touching down in the right place on the surface, the vehicle must hit a box at the top of the atmosphere that is just 3 km by 12 km.
“Our inbound trajectory is right down the pipe,” said Arthur Amador, Curiosity’s mission manager.
“The team is confident and thrilled to finally be arriving at Mars, and we’re reminding ourselves to breathe every so often. We’re ready to go.”
Curiosity’s power and communications systems are in excellent shape.
The one major task left for the mission team is to prime the back-up computer that will take command if the main unit fails during the entry, descent and landing (EDL) manoeuvres.
The Curiosity rover remains perfectly on course to make its Monday (GMT) landing on the Red Planet
Curiosity – also known as the Mars Science Laboratory – has spent the past eight months travelling from Earth to Mars, covering more than 560 million km.
The robot was approaching Mars at about 13,000 km/h on Saturday. By the time the spacecraft hits the top of Mars’ atmosphere, about seven minutes before touch-down, gravity will have accelerated it to about 21,000 km/h.
The vehicle is being aimed at Gale Crater, a deep depression just south of the planet’s equator.
It is equipped with the most sophisticated science payload ever sent to another world.
Its mission, when it gets on the ground, is to characterize the geology in Gale and examine its rocks for signs that ancient environments on Mars could have supported microbial life.
Touch-down is expected at 05:31 GMT (06:31 BST) Monday 6 August; 22:31 PDT, Sunday 5 August.
It is a fully automated procedure. NASA will be following the descent here at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The rover will broadcast X-band and UHF signals on its way down to the surface.
These will be picked up by a mix of satellites at Mars and radio antennas on Earth.
The key communication route will be through the Odyssey orbiter. It alone will see the rover all the way to the ground and have the ability to relay UHF telemetry straight to Earth.
And mission team members remain hopeful that this data will also include some images that Curiosity plans to take of itself just minutes after touching the ground.
These would be low-resolution, wide-angle, black and white images of the rear wheels.
They may not be great to look at, but the pictures will give engineers important information about the exact nature of the terrain under the rover.
A lot has been made of the difficulty of getting to Mars, and historically there have been far more failures than successes (24 versus 15), but the Americans’ recent record at the Red Planet is actually very good – six successful landings versus two failures.
Even so, NASA continues to downplay expectations.
“If we’re not successful, we’re going to learn,” said Doug McCuistion, the head of the US space agency’s Mars programme.
“We’ve learned in the past, we’ve recovered from it. We’ll pick ourselves up, we’ll dust ourselves off, we’ll do something again; this will not be the end.
“The human spirit gets driven by these kinds of challenges, and these are challenges that drive us to explore our surroundings and understand what’s out there.”
The mission team warned reporters on Saturday not to jump to conclusions if there was no immediate confirmation of landing through Odyssey.
There were “credible reasons”, engineers said, why the UHF signal to Odyssey could be lost during the descent, such as a failure on the satellite or a failure of the transmitter on the rover.
Continued efforts would be made to contact Curiosity in subsequent hours as satellites passed overhead and when Gale Crater came into view of radio antennas on Earth.
“There are situations that might come up where we will not get communications all the way through [to the surface], and it doesn’t necessarily mean that something bad has happened; it just means we’ll have to wait and hear from the vehicle later,” explained Richard Cook, the deputy project manager.
This was emphasized by Allen Chen, the EDL operations lead. His is the voice from mission control that will be broadcast to the world during the descent. He will call out specific milestones on the way down. He said there would be no rush to judgement if the Odyssey link was interrupted or contained information that was “off nominal”.
“I think we proceed under any situation as though the spacecraft is there, and there for us to recover – to find out what happened,” he said.
“That’s the most sensible thing to do. There are only a few instances I think where you could know pretty quickly that we’d be in trouble.”