Friday, March 6, 2015

Mars: An Ancient Ocean and Possibility of Life

Mars once had a vast northern ocean.

The news is out. Mars once had a vast northern ocean as deep as the Mediterranean Sea. Based on data from observations from earth using the world's largest telescopes, it's been established that the ancient water on Mars was the "heavy" deuterium kind. Most of this water was lost to space due to the thinning of the atmosphere and insufficient heat. Only 13% of the original water on Mars is left, locked in the north polar ice cap, .

The water evaporated and left pools like in Utopia Planitia.

It makes sense for future Mars missions to look for signs of ancient life in the north martian pole, although most of the "ice" there would be carbon dioxide. Another place of interest to look is Utopia Planitia (Nowhere Plain), where the Viking 2 lander came to rest in 1976. 

Utopia Planitia is reputably the largest impact basin on Mars and is likely one of the last places on the planet where water remained. It's like a giant pothole with puddle left behind by a rain storm. This "puddle" slowly shrank in time. In a desert on Earth, such a puddle would be teeming with life. As the puddle shrinks, so do the living environment, until what's left is a small area where dying critters clump together. 

The Viking lander had several life-detecting experiments onboard. One of them came up positive for signs of life. Since the results could not be convincingly verified, it was concluded to be a false-positive. It's possible that it was actually the descendants of ancient life that was detected by Viking 2, but considering the toxicity of the Martian soil (it contains oxidative perchlorate), and the unhindered stream of radiation from space, it's also likely not an actual sign of life. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Curiosity Lands on Mars - The JPL Good Luck Peanuts Worked

First photo from Curiosity form Mars, just after landing.

Mission control cheers.
After a tense 7 minutes going through the Martian atmosphere on August 5, 2012 (I watched it on NASA TV in my location on August 6, with the landing taking place just before 2pm), the Curiosity Mars Rover has touched down safely on the surface of Mars inside Gale Crater, a geological feature that may hold clues to possible ancient life on the red planet. Through the orbiting Opportunity satellite, Curiosity sent back to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), several pictures, with the first one taken just shortly after it touched down (top) with the dust still flying around it. The second picture also shows one of it's wheels. The third one of of the rover's shadow. (below).

JPL good luck peanuts.
Curiosity will now start it's two-year mission studying the exposed layers of Martian soil in the crater. It's powered by nuclear decay and is expected to outlast its warranty for as long as it does not encounter any unexpected accident. It may well reach the top of the peak in the middle of the crater and then explore the nearby areas. The traditional good luck peanuts of JPL (left) had done its job well.

Curiosity takes a photo of its shadow.

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