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From Obama's talk of sending NASA rockets to Mars to a virtual red planet trip, Mars is getting tons of attention
Drill, baby, drill: The next time we send a robotic rover to the red planet one of the central components of the machine will likely be a drill. The IceBite project, which is funded by NASA's Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets is testing advanced drills built by Honeybee Robotics that will hopefully be able to penetrate further the icy Martian soil for chemical and biological analysis. Honeybee has installed a massive stainless steel chamber whose interior environment can be made more Mars-like than most anywhere else on Earth, according to as recent article in Astrobiology Magazine.
No matter how you look at it Mars is one hot planet these days. President Obama talked about going there, NASA continues to pump almost weekly new discovery information from the red planet, lots of money is being spent to develop exploration instruments and now there is a group of "astronauts" in Europe locked into a faux spaceship, pretending to fly there. Here's a look at the recent happenings making Mars so hot.
Going long: In May NASA noted that its overall Mars Exploration Rover Project passed an historic Martian longevity record. On May 20 Opportunity passed the duration record set by NASA's Viking 1 Lander of six years and 116 days operating on the surface of Mars. NASA added that Spirit began working on Mars three weeks before Opportunity and if it reawakens it will attain the Martian surface longevity record.
Death by ice: In May NASA officially ended its Phoenix Mars Lander operation today after a new image of the machine showed severe ice damage to its solar panels and repeated attempts to contact the spacecraft had failed. The space agency had flown its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite over the lander at least 210 times since January listening for signs of life from the machine. The attempts were made in the off-chance that Phoenix survived a Martian arctic winter the spacecraft was never designed to withstand, NASA stated.
Image master: NASA recently released 600 new pictures of Mars shot by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The pictures cover an area of several square miles on Mars and reveals details as small as desks.
The future: NASA's Mars Science Laboratory should launch in 2011. The Mars Science Laboratory is actually a rover that will drive around the red planet looking for that elusive data that will tell us whether Mars ever was, or is still capable of supporting life. The rover will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface, NASA said. The rover's onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life.
Life?: A team of researchers at McGill University, the National Research Council of Canada, the University of Toronto and the SETI Institute have discovered that methane-eating bacteria survive in a unique spring located on Axel Heiberg Island in Canada's extreme North. Dr. Lyle Whyte, McGill University microbiologist, says that the Lost Hammer spring supports microbial life, that the spring is similar to possible past or present springs on Mars, and that therefore they too could support life. It has been recently discovered that there is methane and frozen water on Mars. Photos taken by the Mars Orbiter show the formation of new gullies, but no one knows what is forming them. One answer is that there could be springs like Lost Hammer on Mars.
I spy, rocks: NASA's now hibernating Mars rover Spirit spotted rocks scientists say could offer key clues to whether life ever did or still does exist on the red planet. The weird thing for NASA is that the outcrop was examined by Spirit in 2005, but the data pointing to the discovery languished since then because one of the instruments that detected the carbonate minerals was partly blinded by dust, the space agency stated. The rover's Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer instrument found an outcrop of rock rich in what are known as carbonate minerals. Such minerals are crucial to understanding the early climate history of Mars and the related question of whether the planet might once have held life, NASA stated.
Looking for life: A device that would let Mars robots use smaller life-detecting instruments is the goal behind a technology from the U.S. Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory. The group's Total Ion Control technology lets one of the key research techniques, mass spectrometry, operate more efficiently, the group claims. Mass spectrometry allows scientists to determine a sample's chemical composition. The group in particular wants to get the TIC technology included in the European ExoMars exploratory lander scheduled to blast off in 2018.
Roly-poly: Could a spherical, wind-driven rover be prowling the Mars surface in the future? Such a spacecraft is being looked at courtesy of a computer model project at North Carolina State University that lets engineers design all manner of space vehicle designs. According to researchers, rovers that could roll over the surface of Mars like a tumbleweed, quickly covering vast distances have been discussed for more than 10 years, but so far there has been no consensus on exactly what that vehicle should look like.
I see you: It has been years in the making but NASA said its Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has captured a new view of the rim of the planet's Endeavour crater, perhaps the rover's ultimate destination. The Mars rover set out for Endeavour in September 2008 after spending two years exploring the Victoria crater. NASA says Endeavour is 13 miles across, some 25 times wider than Victoria crater and could offer scientists more insight into the red planet's make-up.
Big bucks: The UK Space Agency said it will spend a little over $15 million for the development of instruments to search for signs of past or present life on Mars. The instruments are part of the scientific payload on the ExoMars rover to be launched in 2018 as part of a joint mission between the European Space Agency and NASA. The ExoMars rover is a robotic scientist which will search for evidence of past and present life and study the local Martian environment to understand when and where conditions that could have supported the development of life may have prevailed. Unlike previous U.S. rovers, ExoMars will carry a radar able to search beneath it for scientifically promising locations under the surface and a drill to extract samples from 2m down that will be fed to its on-board laboratory.
It's not over till we say it's over: With the Mars Winter solstice officially upon it, NASA's Mars Rover Spirit has disconnected itself with the outside world and is no longer communicating and the space agency says it's not sure when the rover will wake up. No communication has been received from the rover since March 22. As expected, it is likely that Spirit has experienced a low-power fault that will use the available solar array energy to recharge her batteries, NASA said. When the batteries gain enough charge, Spirit will wake up and communicate.
Crazy train: When astronauts onboard the international Mars500 mission began their 520-day virtual trip to Mars this month, one of their primary duties is to play some serious video games. Serious in that what and how they play these games will help engineers develop computerized 'electronic partners' that could travel with astronauts on future deep space missions. The games will be just one of the myriad experiments taking place on the Mars500 mission where a six-man crew is sealed in an isolation facility at Moscow's Institute for Biomedical Problems for 520 days, reflecting the time a return trip to the Red Planet would require. It is the first such full-length simulated mission to Mars, ESA states.
Presidential challenge: In his April speech outlining NASA's future, President Obama said there would be $3.1 billion for the development of a new heavy lift rocket to fly manned and unmanned spaceflights into deep space. Obama's challenge to NASA was to get a manned spaceflight to Mars by 2030 via a number of steps that include robotic flights to the Moon, Mars and other planets as well as a host of other technological missions.
Climate change: Data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have helped scientists understand climate change on the red planet. The orbiter's Shallow Radar (SHARAD) instrument recently showed subsurface geology letting scientists reconstruct the formation of a large chasm and a series of spiral troughs on the northern ice cap of Mars. According to NASA, data from Mars now points to both the canyon and spiral troughs being created and shaped primarily by wind. Rather than being cut into existing ice very recently, the features formed over millions of years as the ice sheet grew. By influencing wind patterns, the shape of underlying, older ice controlled where and how the features grew.
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