Category: rover

Today, we’re expressing gratitude for the opportunity to rove on Mars (#ThanksOppy) as we mark the

completion of a
successful mission

that exceeded our expectations.  

Our Opportunity Rover’s last communication with Earth was received on June 10, 2018, as a planet-wide dust storm blanketed the solar-powered rover’s location on the western rim of Perseverance Valley, eventually blocking out so
much sunlight that the rover could no longer charge its batteries.
Although the skies over Perseverance cleared, the rover did not respond to a final communication attempt on Feb. 12, 2019.

As the rover’s mission comes to an end, here are a few things to know about its opportunity to explore the Red Planet.

90 days turned into 15 years!

Opportunity launched on July 7, 2003 and landed on Mars on Jan. 24, 2004 for a planned mission of 90 Martian days, which is equivalent to
92.4 Earth days.

While we did not expect the golf-cart-sized
rover to survive through a Martian winter, Opportunity defied all odds as a 90-day mission turned into 15 years!

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The Opportunity caught its own silhouette in
this late-afternoon image taken in March 2014 by the rover’s rear hazard avoidance
camera. This camera is mounted low on the rover and has a wide-angle
lens.


Opportunity Set  Out-Of-This-World Records

Opportunity’s
achievements, including confirmation water once flowed on Mars.
Opportunity was, by far, the longest-lasting lander on Mars. Besides
endurance, the six-wheeled rover set a roaming record of 28 miles.

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This chart illustrates comparisons among the distances driven by various
wheeled vehicles on the surface of Earth’s moon and Mars. Opportunity
holds the off-Earth roving distance record after accruing 28.06 miles
(45.16 kilometers) of driving on Mars.

It’s Just Like Having a Geologist on Mars

Opportunity was created to be the mechanical equivalent of a geologist walking from place to place on the Red Planet. Its mast-mounted cameras are 5 feet high and provided 360-degree two-eyed, human-like views of the terrain. The robotic arm moved like a human arm with an elbow and wrist, and can place instruments directly up against rock and soil targets of interest. The mechanical “hand” of the arm holds a microscopic camera that served the same purpose as a geologist’s handheld magnifying lens.

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There’s Lots to See on Mars

After an airbag-protected landing craft settled onto the Red Planet’s surface and
opened, Opportunity rolled out to take panoramic images. These images
gave scientists the information they need to select promising geological
targets that tell part of the story of water in Mars’ past. Since landing in 2004, Opportunity has captured more than 200,000 images. Take a look in this photo gallery.

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From its perch high on a ridge, the Opportunity rover recorded this image on March 31, 2016 of a Martian dust devil twisting through
the valley below. The view looks back at the rover’s tracks leading up
the north-facing slope of “Knudsen Ridge,” which forms part of the
southern edge of “Marathon Valley

There Was Once Water on Mars?!

Among the mission’s scientific goals was to search for and characterize a wide range of rocks and soils for clues to past water activity on Mars. In its time on the Red Planet, Opportunity discovered small spheres of
the
mineral hematite, which typically forms in water. In addition to these spheres that a scientist nicknamed “blueberries,” the rover also found signs of liquid water flowing across the surface in the past: brightly colored veins of the mineral gypsum in rocks, for instance, which indicated water flowing through underground fractures.

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The small spheres on the Martian surface in this close-up image are
near Fram Crater, visited by the Opportunity
rover in April 2004.

For more about Opportunity’s adventures and discoveries, see: https://go.nasa.gov/ThanksOppy.

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In 2020, we will launch our next Mars rover. It will journey more than 33 million miles to the Red Planet where it will land, explore and search for signs of ancient microbial life. But how do we pinpoint the perfect location to complete this science…when we’re a million miles away on Earth?

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We utilize data sent to us by spacecraft on and orbiting Mars. That includes spacecraft that have recorded data in the past.

This week, hundreds of scientists and Mars enthusiasts are gathering to deliberate the four remaining options for where we’re going to land the Mars 2020 rover on the Red Planet.

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The landing site for Mars 2020 is of great interest to the planetary community because, among the rover’s new science gear for surface exploration, it carries a sample system that will collect rock and soil samples and set them aside in a “cache” on the surface of Mars. A future mission could potentially return these samples to Earth. The next Mars landing, after Mars 2020, could very well be a vehicle which would retrieve these Mars 2020 samples.

Here’s an overview of the potential landing sites for our Mars 2020 rover…

Northeast Syrtis

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This area was once warmed by volcanic activity. Underground heat sources made hot springs flow and surface ice melt. Microbes could have flourished here in liquid water that was in contact with minerals. The layered terrain there holds a rich record of interactions between water and minerals over successive periods of early Mars history.

Jezero Crater

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This area tells a story of the on-again, off-again nature of the wet past of Mars. Water filled and drained away from the crater on at least two occasions. More than 3.5 billion years ago, river channels spilled over the crater wall and created a lake. Scientists see evidence that water carried clay minerals from the surrounding area into the crater after the lake dried up. Conceivably, microbial life could have lived in Jezero during one or more of these wet times. If so, signs of their remains might be found in lakebed sediments.

Columbia Hills

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At this site, mineral springs once bubbled up from the rocks. The discovery that hot springs flowed here was a major achievement of the Mars Exploration Rover, Spirit. The rover’s discovery was an especially welcome surprise because Spirit had not found signs of water anywhere else in the 100-mile-wide Gusev Crater. After the rover stopped working in 2010, studies of its older data records showed evidence that past floods may have formed a shallow lake in Gusev.

Midway

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Candidate landing sites Jezero and Northeast Syrtis are approximately 37 km apart…which is close enough for regional geologic similarities to be present, but probably too far for the Mars 2020 rover to travel. This midway point allows exploration of areas of both landing sites.

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How Will We Select a Site?

The team is gathered this week for the fourth time to discuss these locations. It’ll be the final workshop in a series designed to ensure we receive the best and most diverse range of information and opinion from the scientific community before deciding where to send our newest rover.

The Mars 2020 mission is tasked with not only seeking signs of ancient habitable conditions on Mars, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself. So how do we choose a landing site that will optimize these goals? Since InSight is stationary and needs a flat surface to deploy its instruments, we’re basically looking for a flat, parking lot area on Mars to land the spacecraft.

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The first workshop started with about 30 candidate landing sites and was narrowed down to eight locations to evaluate further. At the end of the third workshop in February 2017, there were only three sites on the radar as potential landing locations…

…but in the ensuing months, a proposal came forward for a landing site that is in between Jezero and Northeast Syrtis – The Midway site. Since our goal is to get to the right site that provides the maximum science, this fourth site was viewed as worthy of being included in the discussions.

Now, with four sites remaining, champions for each option will take their turn at the podium, presenting and defending their favorite spot on the Red Planet.

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On the final day, after all presentations have concluded, workshop participants will weigh the pros and cons of each site. The results of these deliberations will be provided to the Mars 2020 Team, which will incorporate them into a recommendation to NASA Headquarters. A final selection will be made and will likely be announced by the end of the year.

To get more information about the workshop, visit: https://marsnext.jpl.nasa.gov/workshops/wkshp_2018_10.cfm

Learn more about our Mars 2020 rover HERE.

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When our next Mars rover lands on the Red Planet in
2021, it will deliver a groundbreaking technology demonstration: the
first helicopter to ever fly on a planetary body other than Earth. This
Mars Helicopter will demonstrate the first controlled, powered,
sustained flight on another world. It could also pave the way for future
missions that guide rovers and gather science data and images at
locations previously inaccessible on Mars. This exciting new technology
could change the way we explore Mars.

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1. Its body is small, but its blades are mighty.

One of the biggest engineering challenges is getting the
Mars Helicopter’s blades just right. They need to push enough air
downward to receive an upward force that allows for thrust and
controlled flight — a big concern on a planet where the atmosphere is
only one percent as dense as Earth’s. “No helicopter has flown in those
flight conditions – equivalent to 100,000 feet (30,000 meters) on
Earth,” said Bob Balaram, chief engineer for the project at our Jet
Propulsion Laboratory.

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2. It has to fly in really thin Martian air.

To compensate for Mars’ thin atmosphere, the blades must
spin much faster than on an Earth helicopter, and the blade size
relative to the weight of the helicopter has to be larger too. The Mars
Helicopter’s rotors measure 4 feet wide (about 1.2 meters) long, tip to
tip. At 2,800 rotations per minute, it will spin about 10 times faster
than an Earth helicopter.

At the same time, the blades shouldn’t flap around too much, as
the helicopter’s design team discovered during testing. Their solution:
make the blades more rigid. “Our blades are much stiffer than any
terrestrial helicopter’s would need to be,” Balaram said.  

The body, meanwhile, is tiny — about the size of a softball. In
total, the helicopter will weigh just under 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms).

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3. It will make up to five flights on Mars.

Over a 30-day period on Mars, the helicopter will attempt
up to five flights, each time going farther than the last. The
helicopter will fly up to 90 seconds at a time, at heights of up to 10
to 15 feet (3 to 5 meters). Engineers will learn a lot about flying a
helicopter on Mars with each flight, since it’s never been done before!

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4. The Mars Helicopter team has already completed groundbreaking tests.

Because a helicopter has never visited Mars before, the
Mars Helicopter team has worked hard to figure out how to predict the
helicopter’s performance on the Red Planet. “We had to invent how to do
planetary helicopter testing on Earth,” said Joe Melko, deputy chief
engineer of Mars Helicopter, based at JPL.

The team, led by JPL and including members from JPL,
AeroVironment Inc.,  Ames Research Center, and Langley Research
Center, has designed, built and tested a series of test vehicles.

In 2016, the team flew a full-scale prototype test model
of the helicopter in the 25-foot (7.6-meter) space simulator at JPL. The
chamber simulated the low pressure of the Martian atmosphere. More
recently, in 2018, the team built a fully autonomous helicopter designed
to operate on Mars, and successfully flew it in the 25-foot chamber in
Mars-like atmospheric density.

Engineers have also exercised the rotors of a test
helicopter in a cold chamber to simulate the low temperatures of Mars at
night. In addition, they have taken design steps to deal with Mars-like
radiation conditions. They have also tested the helicopter’s landing
gear on Mars-like terrain. More tests are coming to see how it performs
with Mars-like winds and other conditions.

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5. The camera is as good as your cell phone camera.

The helicopter’s first priority is successfully flying on
Mars, so engineering information takes priority. An added bonus is its
camera. The Mars Helicopter has the ability to take color photos with a
13-megapixel camera — the same type commonly found in smart phones
today. Engineers will attempt to take plenty of good pictures.

6. It’s battery-powered, but the battery is rechargeable.

The helicopter requires 360 watts of power for each
second it hovers in the Martian atmosphere – equivalent to the power
required by six regular lightbulbs. But it isn’t out of luck when its
lithium-ion batteries run dry. A solar array on the helicopter will
recharge the batteries, making it a self-sufficient system as long as
there is adequate sunlight. Most of the energy will be used to keep the
helicopter warm, since nighttime temperatures on Mars plummet to around
minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 Celsius). During daytime flights,
temperatures may rise to a much warmer minus 13 to minus 58 degrees
Fahrenheit to (minus 25 to minus 50 degrees Celsius) — still chilly by
Earth standards. The solar panel makes an average of 3 watts of power
continuously during a 12-hour Martian day.

7. The helicopter will be carried to Mars under the belly of the rover.

Somewhere between 60 to 90 Martian days (or sols) after
the Mars 2020 rover lands, the helicopter will be deployed from the
underside of the rover. Mars Helicopter Delivery System on the rover
will rotate the helicopter down from the rover and release it onto the
ground. The rover will then drive away to a safe distance.

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8. The helicopter will talk to the rover.

The Mars 2020 rover will act as a telecommunication
relay, receiving commands from engineers back on Earth and relaying them
to the helicopter. The helicopter will then send images and information
about its own performance to the rover, which will send them back to
Earth. The rover will also take measurements of wind and atmospheric
data to help flight controllers on Earth.

9. It has to fly by itself, with some help.

Radio signals take time to travel to Mars — between four
and 21 minutes, depending on where Earth and Mars are in their orbits —
so instantaneous communication with the helicopter will be impossible.
That means flight controllers can’t use a joystick to fly it in real
time, like a video game. Instead, they need to send commands to the
helicopter in advance, and the little flying robot will follow through.
Autonomous systems will allow the helicopter to look at the ground,
analyze the terrain to look how fast it’s moving, and land on its own.

10. It could pave the way for future missions.

A future Mars helicopter could scout points of interest,
help scientists and engineers select new locations and plan driving
routes for a rover. Larger standalone helicopters could carry science
payloads to investigate multiple sites at Mars. Future helicopters could
also be used to fly to places on Mars that rovers cannot reach, such as
cliffs or walls of craters. They could even assist with human
exploration one day. Says Balaram: “Someday, if we send astronauts,
these could be the eyes of the astronauts across Mars.”

Read the full version of this week’s ‘10 Things to Know’ article on the web HERE.

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Massive Martian dust storms have been challenging—and enticing—scientists for decades. Here’s the scoop on Martian dust:

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1: Challenging Opportunity

Our Opportunity rover is facing one of the greatest challenges of its 14 ½ year mission on the surface of Mars–a massive dust storm that has turned day to night. Opportunity is currently hunkered down on Mars near the center of a storm bigger than North America and Russia combined. The dust-induced darkness means the solar-powered rover can’t recharge its batteries.

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2: One Tough Robot

This isn’t the first time Opportunity has had to wait out a massive storm. In 2007, a monthlong series of severe storms filled the Martian skies with dust. Power levels reached critical lows, but engineers nursed the rover back to health when sunlight returned.

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3: Windswept

Martian breezes proved a saving grace for the solar-powered Mars rovers in the past, sweeping away accumulated dust and enabling rovers to recharge and get back to science. This is Opportunity in 2014. The image on the left is from January 2014. The image on the right in March 2014.

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4: Dusty Disappointment

Back in 1971, scientists were eager for their first orbital views of Mars. But when Mariner 9 arrived in orbit, the Red Planet was engulfed by a global dust storm that hid most of the surface for a month. When the dust settled, geologists got detailed views of the Martian surface, including the first glimpses of ancient riverbeds carved into the dry and dusty landscape.

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5: Dramatic License

As bad as the massive storm sounds, Mars isn’t capable of generating the strong winds that stranded actor Matt Damon’s character on the Red Planet in the movie The Martian. Mars’ atmosphere is too thin and winds are more breezy than brutal. The chore of cleaning dusty solar panels to maintain power levels, however, could be a very real job for future human explorers.

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6: Semi-Regular Visitors

Scientists know to expect big dust storms on Mars, but the rapid development of the current one is surprising. Decades of Mars observations show a pattern of regional dust storms arising in northern spring and summer. In most Martian years, nearly twice as long as Earth years, the storms dissipate. But we’ve seen global dust storms in 1971, 1977, 1982, 1994, 2001 and 2007. The current storm season could last into 2019.

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7: Science in the Dust

Dust is hard on machines, but can be a boon to science. A study of the 2007 storm published earlier this year suggests such storms play a role in the ongoing process of gas escaping from the top of Mars’ atmosphere. That process long ago transformed wetter, warmer ancient Mars into today’s arid, frozen planet. Three of our orbiters, the Curiosity rover and international partners are already in position to study the 2018 storm.

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8: Adjusting InSight

Mission controllers for Mars InSight lander–due to land on Mars in November–will be closely monitoring the storm in case the spacecraft’s landing parameters need to be adjusted for safety. 

Once on the Red Planet, InSight will use sophisticated geophysical instruments to delve deep beneath the surface of Mars, detecting the fingerprints of the processes of terrestrial planet formation, as well as measuring the planet’s “vital signs”: Its “pulse” (seismology), “temperature” (heat flow probe), and “reflexes” (precision tracking).

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9: Martian Weather Report

One saving grace of dust storms is that they can actually limit the extreme temperature swings experienced on the Martian surface. The same swirling dust that blocks out sunlight also absorbs heat, raising the ambient temperature surrounding Opportunity.

Track the storm and check the weather on Mars anytime.

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10: Dust: Not Just a Martian Thing

A dust storm in the Sahara can change the skies in Miami and temperatures in the North Atlantic. Earth scientists keep close watch on our home planet’s dust storms, which can darken skies and alter Earth’s climate patterns.

Read the full web version of this article HERE

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Planning a trip to the Moon? Mars? You’re going
to need good tires…

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Exploration requires mobility. And whether you’re on Earth
or as far away as the Moon or Mars, you need good tires to get your vehicle
from one place to another. Our decades-long work developing tires for space
exploration has led to new game-changing designs and materials. Yes, we’re
reinventing the wheel—here’s why.

Wheels on the Moon

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Early tire designs were focused on moving hardware and
astronauts across the lunar surface. The last NASA vehicle to visit the Moon
was the Lunar Roving Vehicle during our Apollo
missions
. The vehicle used four large flexible wire mesh wheels with stiff
inner frames. We used these Apollo era tires as the inspiration for new designs
using newer materials and technology to better function on a lunar surface.

Up springs a new idea

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During the mid-2000s, we worked with industry partner
Goodyear to develop the Spring
Tire
, an airless compliant tire that consists of several hundred coiled
steel wires woven into a flexible mesh, giving the tires the ability to support
high loads while also conforming to the terrain. The Spring Tire has been
proven to generate very good traction and durability in soft sand and on rocks.

Spring Tires for Mars

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A little over a year after the Mars Curiosity Rover landed
on Mars, engineers began to notice significant wheel damage in 2013 due to the
unexpectedly harsh terrain. That’s when engineers began developing new Spring Tire
prototypes to determine if they would be a new and better solution for
exploration rovers on Mars.

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In order for Spring Tires to go the distance on Martian
terrain, new materials were required. Enter nickel titanium,
a shape memory alloy with amazing capabilities that allow the tire to deform
down to the axle and return to its original shape.

These tires can take a lickin’

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After building the shape memory alloy tire, Glenn engineers
sent it to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mars Life Test Facility. It
performed impressively on the punishing track.

Why reinvent the wheel? It’s worth it.

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New, high performing tires would allow lunar and Mars rovers
to explore greater regions of the surface than currently possible. They conform
to the terrain and do not sink as much as rigid wheels, allowing them to carry
heavier payloads for the same given mass and volume. Also, because they absorb
energy from impacts at moderate to high speeds, there is potential for use on
crewed exploration vehicles which are expected to move at speeds significantly
higher than the current Mars rovers.

Airless tires on Earth

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Maybe. Recently, engineers and materials scientists have
been testing a spinoff tire version that would work on cars and trucks on
Earth. Stay tuned as we
continue to push the boundaries on traditional concepts for exploring our world
and beyond.  

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Every day, our spacecraft and people are exploring the solar system. Both the public and the private sectors are contributing to the quest. For example, here are ten things happening just this week:

1. We deliver. 

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The commercial space company Orbital ATK is targeting Saturday, Nov. 11 for the launch of its Cygnus spacecraft on an Antares rocket from Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia. Cygnus is launching on a resupply mission to the International Space Station, carrying cargo and scientific experiments to the six people currently living on the microgravity laboratory. 

2. See for yourself. 

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Social media users are invited to register to attend another launch in person, this one of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This launch, currently targeted for no earlier than December, will be the next commercial cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. The deadline to apply is Nov. 7. Apply HERE.

3. Who doesn’t like to gaze at the Moon?

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Our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) sure does—and from very close range. This robotic spacecraft has been orbiting Earth’s companion since 2009, returning views of the lunar surface that are so sharp they show the footpaths made by Apollo astronauts. Learn more about LRO and the entire history of lunar exploration at NASA’s newly-updated, expanded Moon site: moon.nasa.gov

4. Meanwhile at Mars…

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Another sharp-eyed robotic spacecraft has just delivered a fresh batch of equally detailed images. Our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) surveys the Red Planet’s surface daily, and you can see the very latest pictures of those exotic landscapes HERE. We currently operate five—count ‘em, five—active missions at Mars, with another (the InSight lander) launching next year. Track them all at: mars.nasa.gov.

5. Always curious. 

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One of those missions is the Curiosity rover. It’s currently climbing a rocky highland dubbed Vera Rubin Ridge, turning its full array of instruments on the intriguing geology there. Using those instruments, Curiosity can see things you and I can’t.

6. A new Dawn. 

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Our voyage to the asteroid belt has a new lease on life. The Dawn spacecraft recently received a mission extension to continue exploring the dwarf planet Ceres. This is exciting because minerals containing water are widespread on Ceres, suggesting it may have had a global ocean in the past. What became of that ocean? Could Ceres still have liquid today? Ongoing studies from Dawn could shed light on these questions.

7. There are eyes everywhere. 

When our Mars Pathfinder touched down in 1997, it had five cameras: two on a mast that popped up from the lander, and three on the rover, Sojourner. Since then, photo sensors that were improved by the space program have shrunk in size, increased in quality and are now carried in every cellphone. That same evolution has returned to space. Our Mars 2020 mission will have more “eyes” than any rover before it: a grand total of 23, to create sweeping panoramas, reveal obstacles, study the atmosphere, and assist science instruments.

8. Voyage to a hidden ocean.

One of the most intriguing destinations in the solar system is Jupiter’s moon Europa, which hides a global ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell. Our Europa Clipper mission sets sail in the 2020s to take a closer look than we’ve ever had before. You can explore Europa, too: europa.nasa.gov

9. Flight of the mockingbird. 

On Nov. 10, the main belt asteroid 19482 Harperlee, named for the legendary author of To Kill a Mockingbird, makes its closest approach to Earth during the asteroid’s orbit around the Sun. Details HERE. Learn more about asteroids HERE. Meanwhile, our OSIRIS-REx mission is now cruising toward another tiny, rocky world called Bennu.

10. What else is up this month? 

For sky watchers, there will be a pre-dawn pairing of Jupiter and Venus, the Moon will shine near some star clusters, and there will be meteor activity all month long. Catch our monthly video blog for stargazers HERE.

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