By Elizabeth Landau, CNN
Will the Mars rover Curiosity catch a glimpse of a manned spaceship in this decade? That could be even more exciting than the gray powder it found by drilling.
A nonprofit organization called the Inspiration Mars Foundation is hosting a press conference next week in which plans for a trip to Mars and back will be revealed. The proposed launch date is January 2018, and the venture is called "Mission for America."
The press release doesn't explicitly state that the mission is manned, but it does say that the organization "is committed to accelerating America's human exploration of space as a critical catalyst for future growth, national prosperity, new knowledge and global leadership."
The leader of this effort is millionaire Dennis Tito, who's no stranger to space travel. He spent $20 million to jaunt up to the International Space Station in 2001, making him the first private space traveler.
By Elizabeth Landau, CNN
Mars may have a lot of orangey dust flying around, but now that a rover has retrieved a sample by drilling a rock there, scientists believe the Red Planet may have another color beneath the surface.
The two-ton Mars rover Curiosity, which has been exploring Gale Crater since its miraculous landing on August 6, has become the first robot to drill into a rock to collect a sample on Mars, scientists reported Wednesday. Chemical analyses are still to come, but for now the big news is that the material from the drill appears to be gray.
"We’re sort of seeing a new coloration for Mars here, and it’s an exciting one to us," said Joel Hurowitz, sampling system scientist for Curiosity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
By Elizabeth Landau, CNN
NASA's Mars rover driver Scott Maxwell shared all kinds of amazing things about himself when we last spoke in August. He’s a cancer survivor, for one. And his father was a railroad engineer, passionate about driving trains, while Maxwell himself has been enthusiastically controlling vehicles on Mars since 2004.
“This is the kind of thing that I, as a kid, grew up dreaming about doing, and I have been unbelievably lucky to be able to do this with part of my life,” Maxwell told me.
Given how much he loves working on Mars missions, it was shocking when he revealed on social media that he would be leaving NASA for Google.
“It’s a lot like when my 15-year marriage broke up: JPL and I have grown in different directions, and I’m not a good fit there anymore,” he wrote on Google+. His last day at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was Friday.
A space-age jack of all trades, NASA's Curiosity rover recorded a first by using its drill to collect a sample from a Martian rock.
The rover sent images of the hole in sedimentary bedrock to Earth on Saturday, NASA said in a statement.
NASA said the rover will analyze the rock powder sample.
The flat rock is believed to hold evidence of wet environments that disappeared long ago, officials said.
Curiosity used a drill attached to the end of its robotic arm. It's the first time any robot has drilled such a sample on the Red Planet.
"The most advanced planetary robot ever designed now is a fully operating analytical laboratory on Mars," said John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for the agency's Science Mission Directorate. "This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August, another proud day for America."
In its first two months on Mars, Curiosity stumbled upon an area where it appears that water once flowed in a vigorous stream. Scientists said the rover spotted rock outcrops that seem to have formed in the presence of water, with rounded gravels that may have been transported by water.
Curiosity has identified an area of diverse rocks, which add to the body of evidence that there was once water on Mars, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in an update on the rover's progress given at a press briefing on Tuesday.
These rocks are the first target for Curiosity's drill. The area is named "John Klein," after a Curiosity project manager and longtime Jet Propulsion Laboratory veteran who died in 2011.
Michael Malin, the principal investigator for Mastcam, the two cameras on the rover's mast, said at the briefing that "diversity is always a measure of the number of processes and types of materials" in an area.
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Miguel San Martin, chief engineer for Guidance, Navigation, and Control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he has worked on four Mars spacecraft. On Twitter he's @MigOnMars.
In case you're just tuning in: On August 6 (it was still August 5 on the West Coast), the Mars rover Curiosity landed on Mars amid enormous celebration among space enthusiasts. The one-ton rover put its wheels on Mars through a complicated process known as "seven minutes of terror." A supersonic parachute and a sky crane had to be utilized in order to safely get Curiosity there. The mission cost $2.5 billion.
San Martin, who worked on Curiosity's landing system, spoke in November at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta at a special Holy Innocents' Episcopal School event called "Pushing Boundaries." We caught up with him before he gave an inspiring talk to students, parents and faculty about his career. Here is an edited transcript:
James Wray is an assistant professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He is a collaborator on the Curiosity rover and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter science teams. His research explores the chemistry, mineralogy and geology of Martian rocks as records of environmental conditions throughout the planet’s history.
In less than a month, the Opportunity rover will begin her 10th year on the surface of Mars. She has already outlived her 90-day warranty 35 times over, like a human living 2,500 years instead of 70 – an astonishing engineering achievement.
But how has Mars science advanced during this period?
Opportunity and her twin sister, Spirit, went to Mars to determine whether, where, and how liquid water ever flowed across the Martian surface. Before their missions, we knew Mars had dry river valleys, but how could we be sure that water carved them? Where were the minerals that liquid water leaves behind: the clays that dominate our tropical soils on Earth, or salts deposited after evaporation?
Opportunity landed on Mars and opened her robotic eyes to a paradise of salt-rich rocks, with the frozen ripples of 3-billion-year-old ponds confirming that water once was there. But as the years passed on, like any Eden, the paradise felt more like a prison, and a heretical plan emerged to journey a seemingly impossible distance in pursuit of new knowledge.
By Elizabeth Landau, CNN
A team of scientists has established a whole new class of meteorites that seems to have come from Mars' crust, based on a rare sample from 2.1 billion years ago.
The newly analyzed meteorite has more water than any other Martian meteorite that we know of, by a magnitude of more than 10, said Carl Agee, lead study author and director of the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico. Agee and colleagues published their analysis of the meteorite in the journal Science Express.
"There are thousands and thousands of meteorites, and so far this is the only one like it," Agee said.
Here's what's been going on in the world of space news recently:
NASA announces multiyear Mars program
The Curiosity rover has been busily driving, scooping and analyzing material on the Red Planet, but there is lots more to be done on Mars. NASA has made plans for a new multiyear Mars exploration program, including the development of a new robotic science rover set to launch in 2020.
The development and design of the next rover will be based on the same architecture as Curiosity, keeping costs down while delivering it to Mars in a way that has already been shown to work.
NASA says the new mission is a significant step to ensure the United States maintains leadership in Red Planet exploration. The United States is determined to send Astronauts back to space sometime in the 2030s.
Including this one, there are seven NASA missions either under way or being planned to study Mars.
Scientists find Green Bean galaxies in space
Observations from the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope detected an unusual bright green galaxy that displays the largest and brightest glowing regions ever seen in the universe.
“They are so huge and bright that they can be observed in great detail, despite their large distances,” according to a statement from the European Southern Observatory.
Researchers found 16 more galaxies with similar properties and gave the group of galaxies a new name based on their unusual appearance.
“This new class of galaxies has been nicknamed Green Bean galaxies because of their color and because they are superficially similar to, but larger than, green pea galaxies,” the statement added.
A new look at our planet at night
A NASA and NOAA satellite called Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership has revealed high-resolution images of our planet at night. Data from the new images shows light from natural and man-made objects on the globe in unprecedented detail. That's thanks to a sensor called the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, or VIIRS.
“Satellites in the U.S defense Meteorological Satellite program have been making observations with low-light sensors for 40 years, but the VIIRS day-night band can detect and resolve Earth’s night lights,” a NASA statement explained.
NOAA Weather Service’s forecast office in California uses VIIRS day-night band to improve monitoring and forecasting of dense fog and low clouds at high air traffic coastal airports such as San Francisco airport.
CNN's Elizabeth Landau contributed to this report
Here's the short version of today's Mars news: Curiosity has, in fact, detected simple organics in Martian soil, but that detection is not definitive evidence of Mars-native organic compounds. Scientists first need to make sure that the compounds detected by the Mars Science Laboratory aren't actually stowaways from Earth.
At the American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting, a panel of Curiosity scientists shed some light on all the recent hype about a Big Deal Discovery on Mars. According to Paul Mahaffy, the principal investigator for the SAM instrument aboard Curiosity, "SAM has no definitive detection to report of organic compounds," which actually isn't unexpected. Part of the reason Curiosity was sampling the soil at Rock Nest, a pit stop on the way to Mount Sharp, is that it was expected to be very ordinary, which is helpful for cleaning out the rover's instruments of Earth contaminants.
This declaration may seem to conflict with a statement made later in the conference, where Mahaffy stated that SAM detected "very simple chlorinated hydrocarbons" - organic compounds. The panelists qualified this statement by saying that they're proceeding methodically and scientifically, to ensure that the hydrocarbons they've found didn't hitch a ride aboard Curiosity from Earth. Even if it turns out that they didn't, there's another step before declaring the organics to be of Martian origin: The science team has ensure that the compounds didn't arrive on Mars from space.
If that sounds like bad news or no news to you, think again. Curiosity's team is very satisfied with the rover, which is four months in to a planned two-year mission. "We landed on an ancient riverbed," said Dr. Michael Meyer, one of the lead scientists for NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "I think that's just spectacular."
John Grotzinger, the project scientist for Curiosity, said that the rover's in great shape do to more good science on top of the reams of data it's already collected, noting that all of Curiosity's instruments have checked out healthy. He compared the rover to a car getting ready for a long road trip; the "CSI lab on wheels" will begin its drive to its main target, Mount Sharp, early in 2013.
As to whether Curiosity will find evidence of life on Mars or not, Grotzinger said that such a discovery is at least months away. Right now, the team is excited about rich data that helps form a picture of what the environment on Mars might have been like in the past.
Grotzinger added, "What I've learned from this is you have to be careful about what you say and even more careful about how you say it. We're doing science at the speed of science; we live in a world that's at the pace of Instagrams."
"Curiosity's middle name is Patience, and we all have to have a healthy dose of that."