We detected organic molecules at the harsh surface of Mars! And what’s important about this is we now have a lot more certainty that there’s organic molecules preserved at the surface of Mars. We didn’t know that before.
One of the discoveries is we found organic molecules just beneath the surface of Mars in 3 billion-year-old sedimentary rocks.
Second, we’ve found seasonal variations in methane levels in the atmosphere over 3 Mars years (nearly 6 Earth years). These two discoveries increase the chances that the record of habitability and potential life has been preserved on the Red Planet despite extremely harsh conditions on the surface.
Both discoveries were made by our chem lab that rides aboard the Curiosity rover on Mars.
Here’s an image from when we installed the SAM lab on the rover. SAM stands for “Sample Analysis at Mars” and SAM did two things on Mars for this discovery.
One – it tested Martian rocks. After the arm selects a sample of pulverized rock, it heats up that sample and sends that gas into the chamber, where the electron stream breaks up the chemicals so they can be analyzed.
What SAM found are fragments of large organic molecules preserved in ancient rocks which we think come from the bottom of an ancient Martian lake. These organic molecules are made up of carbon and hydrogen, and can include other elements like nitrogen and oxygen. That’s a possible indicator of ancient life…although non-biological processes can make organic molecules, too.
The other action SAM did was ‘sniff’ the air.
When it did that, it detected methane in the air. And for the first time, we saw a repeatable pattern of methane in the Martian atmosphere. The methane peaked in the warm, summer months, and then dropped in the cooler, winter months.
On Earth, 90 percent of methane is produced by biology, so we have to consider the possibility that Martian methane could be produced by life under the surface. But it also could be produced by non-biological sources. Right now, we don’t know, so we need to keep studying the Mars!
One of our upcoming Martian missions is the InSight lander. InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a Mars lander designed to give the Red Planet its first thorough checkup since it formed 4.5 billion years ago. It is the first outer space robotic explorer to study in-depth the “inner space” of Mars: its crust, mantle, and core.
Finding methane in the atmosphere and ancient carbon preserved on the surface gives scientists confidence that our Mars 2020 rover and ESA’s (European Space Agency’s) ExoMars rover will find even more organics, both on the surface and in the shallow subsurface.
Read the full release on today’s announcement HERE.
Jupiter and Venus at sunset, Mars, Saturn and Vesta until dawn.
First up is Venus. It reaches its highest sunset altitude for the year this month and sets more than two hours after sunset.
You can’t miss Jupiter, only a month after its opposition–when Earth was directly between Jupiter and the Sun.
The best time to observe Jupiter through a telescope is 10:30 p.m. at the beginning of the month and as soon as it’s dark by the end of the month.
Just aim your binoculars at the bright planet for a view including the four Galilean moons. Or just enjoy Jupiter with your unaided eye!
Saturn is at opposition June 27th, when it and the Sun are on opposite sides of Earth. It rises at sunset and sets at sunrise. Great Saturn viewing will last several more months. The best views this month will be just after midnight.
All year, the rings have been tilted wide open–almost 26 degrees wide this month–giving us a great view of Saturn’s distinctive rings.
The tilt offers us a view of the north polar region, so exquisitely imaged by the Cassini spacecraft.
Near Saturn, the brightest asteroid–Vesta–is so bright that it can be seen with your unaided eye. It will be visible for several months.
A detailed star chart will help you pick out the asteroid from the stars. The summer Milky way provides a glittery backdrop.
Finally, Mars grows dramatically in brightness and size this month and is visible by 10:30 p.m. by month end.
The best views are in the early morning hours. Earth’s closest approach with Mars is only a month away. It’s the closest Mars has been to us since 2003.
The Moon and Saturn meet Mars in the morning as our InSight spacecraft launches to the Red Planet on May 5!
You won’t want to miss red Mars in the southern morning skies this month.
InSight, our first mission to explore Mars’ deep interior, launches on May 5th with a launch window that begins at 4:05 a.m. PDT and lasts for two hours.
Some lucky viewers in central and southern California and even parts of the Mexican Pacific coast will get a chance to see the spacecraft launch with their unaided eyes AND its destination, Mars, at the same time.
Mars shines a little brighter than last month, as it approaches opposition on July 27th. That’s when Mars and the Sun will be on opposite sides of the Earth. This will be Mars’ closest approach to Earth since 2003!
Compare the planet’s increases in brightness with your own eyes between now and July 27th.
The Eta Aquarid meteor shower will be washed out by the Moon this month, but if you are awake for the InSight launch anyway, have a look. This shower is better viewed from the southern hemisphere, but medium rates of 10 to 30 meteors per hour MAY be seen before dawn.
Of course, you could travel to the South Pacific to see the shower at its best!
There’s no sharp peak to this shower–just several nights with good rates, centered on May 6th.
Jupiter reaches opposition on May 9th, heralding the best Jupiter-observing season, especially for mid-evening viewing. That’s because the king of the planets rises at sunset and sets at dawn.
Wait a few hours after sunset, when Jupiter is higher in the sky, for the best views. If you viewed Jupiter last month, expect the view to be even better this month!
May the fifth be with you because history is about to be made: As early as May 5, 2018, we’re set to launch MarsInSight, the very first mission to study the deep interior of Mars. We’ve been roaming the surface of Mars for a while now, but when InSight lands on Nov. 26, 2018, we’re going in for a deeper look. Below, 10 things to know as we head to the heart of Mars.
Coverage of prelaunch and launch activities begins Thursday, May 3, on NASA Television and our homepage.
1. What’s in a name?
“Insight” is to see the inner nature of something, and the InSight lander—a.k.a. Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport—will do just that. InSight will take the “vital signs” of Mars: its pulse (seismology), temperature (heat flow) and reflexes (radio science). It will be the first thorough check-up since the planet formed 4.5 billion years ago.
You read that right: earthquakes, except on Mars. Scientists have seen a lot of evidence suggesting Mars has quakes, and InSight will try to detect marsquakes for the first time. By studying how seismic waves pass through the different layers of the planet (the crust, mantle and core), scientists can deduce the depths of these layers and what they’re made of. In this way, seismology is like taking an X-ray of the interior of Mars.
InSight is a Mars mission, but it’s also so much more than that. By studying the deep interior of Mars, we hope to learn how other rocky planets form. Earth and Mars were molded from the same primordial stuff more than 4.5 billion years ago, but then became quite different. Why didn’t they share the same fate? When it comes to rocky planets, we’ve only studied one in great detail: Earth. By comparing Earth’s interior to that of Mars, InSight’s team hopes to better understand our solar system. What they learn might even aid the search for Earth-like planets outside our solar system, narrowing down which ones might be able to support life.
4. Robot testing.
InSight looks a bit like an oversized crane game: When it lands on Mars this November, its robotic arm will be used to grasp and move objects on another planet for the first time. And like any crane game, practice makes it easier to capture the prize.
Mars has weak sunlight because of its long distance from the Sun and a dusty, thin atmosphere. So InSight’s fan-like solar panels were specially designed to power InSight in this environment for at least one Martian year, or two Earth years.
8. Clues in the crust.
Our scientists have found evidence that Mars’ crust is not as dense as previously thought, a clue that could help researchers better understand the Red Planet’s interior structure and evolution. “The crust is the end-result of everything that happened during a planet’s history, so a lower density could have important implications about Mars’ formation and evolution,” said Sander Goossens of our Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
InSight won’t be flying solo—it will have two microchips on board inscribed with more than 2.4 million names submitted by the public. “It’s a fun way for the public to feel personally invested in the mission,” said Bruce Banerdt of our Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the mission’s principal investigator. “We’re happy to have them along for the ride.”
10. Tiny CubeSats, huge firsts.
The rocket that will loft InSight beyond Earth will also launch a separate NASA technology experiment: two mini-spacecraft called Mars Cube One, or MarCO. These suitcase-sized CubeSats will fly on their own path to Mars behindInSight. Their goal is to test new miniaturized deep space communication equipment and, if the MarCOs make it to Mars, may relay back InSight data as it enters the Martian atmosphere and lands. This will be a first test of miniaturized CubeSat technology at another planet, which researchers hope can offer new capabilities to future missions.
Check out the full version of ‘Solar System: 10 Thing to Know This Week’ HERE.
The Moon, Mars and Saturn and the Lyrid meteor shower!
The Moon, Mars and Saturn
The Moon, Mars and Saturn form a pretty triangle in early April, the Lyrid Meteors are visible in late April, peaking high overhead on the 22nd.
You won’t want to miss red Mars and golden Saturn in the south-southeast morning skies this month. Mars shines a little brighter than last month.
By the 7th, the Moon joins the pair. From a dark sky you may see some glow from the nearby Milky Way.
Midmonth, start looking for Lyrid meteors, which are active from April 14 through the 30th. They peak on the 22nd.
The Lyrids are one of the oldest known meteor showers and have been observed for 2,700 years. The first recorded sighting of a Lyrid meteor shower goes back to 687 BC by the Chinese. The pieces of space debris that interact with our atmosphere to create the Lyrids originate from comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher. Comet Thatcher was discovered on 5 April 1861 by A. E. Thatcher.
In the early morning sky, a patient observer will see up to more than a dozen meteors per hour in this medium-strength shower, with 18 meteors per hour calculated for the peak. U.S. observers should see good rates on the nights before and after this peak.
A bright first quarter moon plays havoc with sky conditions, marring most of the typically faint Lyrid meteors. But Lyra will be high overhead after the moon sets at midnight, so that’s the best time to look for Lyrids.
Jupiter & Juno
Jupiter will also be visible in the night sky this month!
Through a telescope, Jupiter’s clouds belts and zones are easy to see.
And watch the Great Red Spot transit–or cross–the visible (Earth-facing) disk of Jupiter every 8 hours.
Our Juno spacecraft continues to orbit this gas giant, too!
And Juno’s JunoCam citizen science team is creating exciting images of Jupiter’s features based on the latest spacecraft data.
Next month Jupiter is at opposition–when it rises at sunset, sets at sunrise, and offers great views for several months!
“The first TV image of Mars, hand colored strip-by-strip, from Mariner 4 in 1965. The completed image was framed and presented to JPL director, William H. Pickering. Truly a labor of love for science!” -Kristen Erickson, NASA Science Engagement and Partnerships Director
“There are so many stories to this image. It is a global image, but relates to an individual in one glance. There are stories on social, economic, population, energy, pollution, human migration, technology meets science, enable global information, etc., that we can all communicate with similar interests under one image.” -Winnie Humberson, NASA Earth Science Outreach Manager
“Whenever I see this picture, I wonder…if another species saw this blue dot what would they say and would they want to discover what goes on there…which is both good and bad. However, it would not make a difference within the eternity of space—we’re so insignificant…in essence just dust in the galactic wind—one day gone forever.”
-Dwayne Brown, NASA Senior Communications Official
“I observed the Galactic Center with several X-ray telescopes before Chandra, including the Einstein Observatory and ROSAT. But the Chandra image looks nothing like those earlier images, and it reminded me how complex the universe really is. Also I love the colors.” -Paul Hertz, Director, NASA Astrophysics Division
“This image from the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite captured a unique view of the Moon as it moved in front of the sunlit side of Earth in 2015. It shows a view of the farside of the Moon, which faces the Sun, that is never directly visible to us here on Earth. I found this perspective profoundly moving and only through our satellite views could this have been shared.” -Michael Freilich, Director NASA Earth Science Division
“Pluto was so unlike anything I could imagine based on my knowledge of the Solar System. It showed me how much about the outer solar system we didn’t know. Truly shocking, exciting and wonderful all at the same time.” -Jim Green, Director, NASA Planetary Science Division
“This high-resolution, false color image of Pluto is my favorite. The New Horizons flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015 capped humanity’s initial reconnaissance of every major body in the solar system. To think that all of this happened within our lifetime! It’s a reminder of how privileged we are to be alive and working at NASA during this historic era of space exploration.” – Laurie Cantillo, NASA Planetary Science Public Affairs Officer
“The Solar System family portrait, because it is a symbol what NASA exploration is really about: Seeing our world in a new and bigger way.” – Thomas H. Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator, NASA Science Mission Directorate
This month, at sunset, catch elusive Mercury, bright Venus, the Zodiacal Light, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter between midnight and dawn!
Both Venus and Mercury play the part of “evening stars” this month. At the beginning of the month they appear low on the western horizon.
The Moon itself joins the pair from March 18th through the 20th.
The Moon skims by the Pleiades star cluster and Taurus’s bright red star Aldebaran on the next few evenings, March 21 through the 23rd.
Jupiter, king of the planets, rises just before midnight this month and earlier by month end.
Even through the smallest telescope or average binoculars, you should see the 4 Galilean moons, Europa, Io, Callisto and Ganymede.
The March morning sky offers dazzling views of Mars and Saturn all month long.
Through a telescope, you can almost make out some of the surface features on Mars.
Look a little farther into Mars’ future and circle May 5th with a red marker. When our InSight spacecraft launches for its 6 month journey to the Red Planet, Mars will be easily visible to your unaided eye.
Keep watching Mars as it travels closer to Earth. It will be closest in late July, when the red planet will appear larger in apparent diameter than it has since 2003!
You are in for a real treat if you can get away to a dark sky location on a moonless night this month – the Zodiacal Light and the Milky Way intersect!
The Zodiacal light is a faint triangular glow seen from a dark sky just after sunset in the spring or just before sunrise in the fall.
The more familiar Milky Way is one of the spiral arms of our galaxy.
What we’re seeing is sunlight reflecting off dust grains that circle the Sun in the inner solar system. These dust grains journey across our sky in the ecliptic, the same plane as the Moon and the planets.
This animation blinks between two images of our Mars Phoenix Lander. The first – dark smudges on the planet’s surface. The second – the same Martian terrain nearly a decade later, covered in dust. Our Mars orbiter captured this shot as it surveyed the planet from orbit: the first in 2008. The second: late 2017.
In August 2008, Phoenix completed its three-month mission studying Martian ice, soil and atmosphere. The lander worked for two additional months before reduced sunlight caused energy to become insufficient to keep the lander functioning. The solar-powered robot was not designed to survive through the dark and cold conditions of a Martian arctic winter.
Applying Wallpaper: 1. Click on the screen resolution you would like to use. 2. Right-click on the image (control-click on a Mac) and select the option ‘Set the Background’ or ‘Set as Wallpaper’ (or similar).
1. The Fault in Our Mars
This image from our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) of northern Meridiani Planum shows faults that have disrupted layered deposits. Some of the faults produced a clean break along the layers, displacing and offsetting individual beds.
Our Juno spacecraft captured this image when the spacecraft was only 11,747 miles (18,906 kilometers) from the tops of Jupiter’s clouds – that’s roughly as far as the distance between New York City and Perth, Australia. The color-enhanced image, which captures a cloud system in Jupiter’s northern hemisphere, was taken on Oct. 24, 2017, when Juno was at a latitude of 57.57 degrees (nearly three-fifths of the way from Jupiter’s equator to its north pole) and performing its ninth close flyby of the gas giant planet.
After more than 13 years at Saturn, and with its fate sealed, our Cassini spacecraft bid farewell to the Saturnian system by firing the shutters of its wide-angle camera and capturing this last, full mosaic of Saturn and its rings two days before the spacecraft’s dramatic plunge into the planet’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017.
Saturn’s moon Enceladus drifts before the rings, which glow brightly in the sunlight. Beneath its icy exterior shell, Enceladus hides a global ocean of liquid water. Just visible at the moon’s south pole (at bottom here) is the plume of water ice particles and other material that constantly spews from that ocean via fractures in the ice. The bright speck to the right of Enceladus is a distant star. This image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Nov. 6, 2011.
Our Solar Dynamics Observatory came across an oddity this week that the spacecraft has rarely observed before: a dark filament encircling an active region (Oct. 29-31, 2017). Solar filaments are clouds of charged particles that float above the Sun, tethered to it by magnetic forces. They are usually elongated and uneven strands. Only a handful of times before have we seen one shaped like a circle. (The black area to the left of the brighter active region is a coronal hole, a magnetically open region of the Sun).
See Jupiter’s southern hemisphere in beautiful detail in this image taken by our Juno spacecraft. The color-enhanced view captures one of the white ovals in the “String of Pearls,” one of eight massive rotating storms at 40 degrees south latitude on the gas giant planet. The image was taken on Oct. 24, 2017, as Juno performed its ninth close flyby of Jupiter. At the time the image was taken, the spacecraft was 20,577 miles (33,115 kilometers) from the tops of the clouds of the planet.
Our Cassini spacecraft obtained this panoramic view of Saturn’s rings on Sept. 9, 2017, just minutes after it passed through the ring plane. The view looks upward at the southern face of the rings from a vantage point above Saturn’s southern hemisphere.
This sequence of images from our Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the Sun from its surface to its upper atmosphere all taken at about the same time (Oct. 27, 2017). The first shows the surface of the sun in filtered white light; the other seven images were taken in different wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light. Note that each wavelength reveals somewhat different features. They are shown in order of temperature, from the first one at about 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit (6,000 degrees Celsius) on the surface, out to about 10 million degrees in the upper atmosphere. Yes, the sun’s outer atmosphere is much, much hotter than the surface. Scientists are getting closer to solving the processes that generate this phenomenon.
This orthographic projection shows dwarf planet Ceres as seen by our Dawn spacecraft. The projection is centered on Occator Crater, home to the brightest area on Ceres. Occator is centered at 20 degrees north latitude, 239 degrees east longitude.
This image from our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows a small portion of the floor of Coprates Chasma, a large trough within the Valles Marineris system of canyons. Although the exact sequence of events that formed Coprates Chasma is unknown, the ripples, mesas, and craters visible throughout the terrain point to a complex history involving multiple mechanisms of erosion and deposition. The main trough of Coprates Chasma ranges from 37 miles (60 kilometers) to 62 miles (100 kilometers) in width.
Quadrantid meteors, a West Coast-favoring total lunar eclipse and time to start watching Mars!
This month the new year’s first meteor shower fizzles, Mars meets Jupiter in the morning sky and the U.S. will enjoy a total lunar eclipse!
Most meteor showers radiate from recognizable constellations. Like the Leonids, Geminids and Orionids.
But the Quadrantids are meteors that appear to radiate from the location of the former Quadrans Muralis constellation, an area that’s now part of the constellation Bootes.
The Quadrantids’ peak lasts for just a few hours, and sadly, this year their timing coincides with a very bright, nearly full moon that will wash out most of the meteors.
You can look in any direction to see all the meteor showers. When you see one of these meteors, hold a shoestring along the path it followed. The shoestring will lead you back to the constellation containing the meteor’s origin.
On the morning of January 6th, look in the south-southeast sky 45 minutes before sunrise to see Jupiter and fainter Mars almost as close as last month’s Jupiter and Venus close pairing.
Mars is only one-sixth the apparent diameter of Jupiter, but the two offer a great binocular and telescopic view with a pretty color contrast. They remain in each other’s neighborhood from January 5th through the 8th.
Finally, to end the month, a great total lunar eclipse favors the western U.S., Alaska, and Hawaii and British Columbia on January 31st. Australia and the Pacific Ocean are well placed to see a major portion of the eclipse–if not all of it.