Archive for September, 2017

Curiosity Front Hazcam Right B image taken on Sol 1821, September 20, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is carrying out science duties in Sol 1822. It’s “onward and upward” for the robot, reports Lauren Edgar, a planetary geologist; at the USGS in Flagstaff, Arizona.

On Sol 1821, Curiosity successfully completed contact science activities at “Pennessewassee” and “Passadumkeag,” Edgar notes. “Perhaps in an effort to get to more easily pronounceable rock targets, today’s tactical team planned a nice long drive towards our next waypoint on Vera Rubin Ridge.”

Clouds above

The scripted Sol 1822 plan begins with a Navcam movie to look for clouds above the northern rim of the crater. Then Curiosity will turn its attention towards nearby bedrock targets, using both Mastcam and its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to assess the spectral character of a recent dust removal target called “Passadumkeag” and to assess the composition and sedimentary structures exposed at “Hypocrites Ledge.”

“We’ll also use Mastcam to monitor the movement of fines on the rover deck,” Edgar explains.

Curiosity Navcam Left B photo taken on Sol 1819, September 18, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Gearing up for drive

Then Curiosity will gear up for a drive of roughly 130 feet (40 meters), as the robot works its way towards the next waypoint.

Downlink data volume was a recent challenge, so the team had to think carefully about the priorities of post-drive imaging to prepare for possible touch-and-go contact science and other remote sensing in the next plan.

Curiosity Rear Hazcam Right B image acquired on Sol 1821, September 20, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mountain-climbing robot

The afternoon post-drive imaging block also contains some extended Navcam coverage for additional geologic context and targeting, as well as two Navcam observations to search for clouds and monitor the wind direction near the zenith, Edgar notes.

“With drives like these,” Edgar concludes, “we’re really reminded that we have a mountain-climbing robot on Mars!”

Curiosity Mastcam Right image of rover brushes, taken on Sol 1818, September 17, 2017.                                 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS




Earth’s Moon as seen from the International Space Station taken by ESA British astronaut, Tim Peake.
Credit: NASA/ESA


The European Space Agency (ESA) has issued an announcement of opportunity centered on the advancement, maturation and demonstration of lunar In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) technologies.

ESA wants to demonstrate critical technologies in the end-to-end ISRU process chain for production of oxygen at the lunar surface.

In-Situ Resource Utilization
Credit: ESA–K. Oldenburg

Also they want harness expertise to characterize the ISRU feedstock at a location which is representative of those which will be visited by future human missions.


The objectives of this activity are:

  • to identify a candidate ISRU payload, payload suppliers and partners interested in jointly enabling research and development
  • to identify commercial providers for lunar surface delivery and communications services
  • to study two mission concepts and their implementation feasibility.
  • select one successful mission concept in a final ESA review.

In a statement released today, ESA wants a return to the Moon to be sustainable and based on partnerships – not only with international space agencies but also with business. “A commercial approach may just be the ticket – literally and figuratively – to making it happen.”

Lunar base made with 3D printing
Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners

Roaming charges

“ESA wants to buy a ride on a commercial lander to deliver our precious research equipment safely to the surface. Once there, we are ready to pay the ‘roaming charges’ to talk to our hardware,” explains the statement.

“We are looking to invest in the development and pay for the use of technology that can turn indigenous lunar material into oxygen and water, critical resources for sustaining future human operations in deep space.”

Service providers

ESA is inviting service providers with the right ideas to take part in a one-year study that will shape this In-Situ Resource Utilization Demonstrator Mission.

For more information and details on how to submit proposals, go to:

Credit: Barbara David

The ability to make Mars on Earth is being accomplished by a specialized simulation chamber looking into the prospect of detecting life on the Red Planet.

Work is underway to investigate how hitchhiking microorganisms on spacecraft might survive, grow, and possibly adapt to the harsh environmental conditions on Mars.

NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE image of Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL) in Melas Chasma, Valles Marineris. Arrows point out tops and bottoms of a few lineae.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona



Enigmatic features

New research is underway to mimic sites on Mars that could harbor microbiota today, places on the planet that contain transient or permanent liquid water near the martian surface – such as those enigmatic Recurring Slope Lineae. RSL could be shallow, subsurface liquid brines that slowly move down slope.


For more details, go to my new story:

Cold World, Hot Topic: Can Microbes Survive on Mars?

Credit: ESA – P.Carril


What do we need to know to mine an asteroid?

To make this concept a reality there’s need to increase knowledge regarding the very diverse population of accessible Near Earth Asteroids (NEA).

Last year, dozens of the world’s leading asteroid scientists and asteroid mining entrepreneurs came together in Luxembourg to discuss key questions and identify scientific knowledge gaps.

A just-issued White Paper outline the results of that discussion — “Answers to Questions from the Asteroid Miners” – and has been presented at the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) 2017 in Riga now underway.

Hand over hand contact with asteroids – part of our future?
Credit: NASA


The White Paper covers questions surrounding the need for asteroid surveys in preparing for mining missions, the asteroid’s surface and interior, implications for astrobiology and planetary protection and other questions relating to policy and strategy for developing a roadmap for advancing asteroid in-space resource utilization.

For example, asteroid miners looking for water to use in rocket fuel or life support systems, being able to identify the class of asteroid is vital.

Furthermore, comprehensive knowledge of regolith properties at asteroids’ surface and subsurface will be vital for developing strategies for landing and extracting materials. However, as yet, no mission has explored how asteroid regolith might vary with depth.

Asteroid Ida
Credit: NASA/PL

Potential targets

“Aside from samples returned from a handful of missions, the only way we can study the composition of asteroids is by analyzing light reflected from their surfaces, or by examining fragments that have landed on Earth in the form of meteorites,” says lead White Paper author, Amara Graps of the University of Latvia and the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona.

A number of knowledge gaps were identified: the asteroid miners need access to a map of known NEAs with an orbit similar to the Earth so that they can fine-tune their selection of potential targets.

Many objects are – as yet – undiscovered or very little is known about them, so there is also a need to develop a dedicated NEA discovery and follow-up program.

Business plan for asteroid mining.
Credit: Joel Sercel/ICS Associates Inc. and TransAstra


We have never seen inside of an asteroid. Which is it?
Credit: Walker et al., 2006 and Murdoch, 2016

“Asteroid mining techniques will need to adapt to the low-gravity environment. Possible solutions include cancelling out action-reaction forces by digging in opposite directions at the same time, or by producing a reaction force, such as by strapping a net around the asteroid for robots to grab onto while they dig,” says J. L. Galache of Aten Engineering, an asteroid “astropreneur” and contributor to the White Paper. “It’s a challenge! But answering the questions posed in this White Paper will be an important first step.”


Questions from the asteroid mining companies have been sorted into the three asteroid science themes: 1) survey, 2) surface and 3) subsurface and 4) Other.

The answers to those questions have been provided in the Asteroid Science Intersections with In-­‐Space Mine Engineering (ASIME) 2016 White Paper: In-Space Utilization of Asteroids: “Answers to Questions from the Asteroid Miners”

Go to:



Blue Origin’s crew capsule – a suborbital six-seater craft.
Credit: Blue Origin

Question: “As you may know, a number of private companies are experimenting with individual space travel. If you could afford it, how likely would you be to travel to space?”

Taking a new public pulse regarding this question is a Sept. 7-11 Morning Consult/POLITICO poll.

Explains Edward Graham, a reporter at Morning Consult covering tech policy: Forty-one percent of registered voters said they were likely to travel to space if they could afford it. A 48-percent plurality said they were not too likely or not at all likely to do so, even if they had the means.

Eleven percent didn’t know or had no opinion, according to the national sample of 1,975 voters. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic takes flight. Will public space travel?
Credit: Virgin Galactic

Underwhelming prospect

Graham points out that Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are pursuing expensive private space travel efforts.

Public pulse on space travel – sample page from new poll.
Credit: Morning Consult/POLITICO poll.

“Some Americans seem underwhelmed by the possibility of affordable private-sector space travel,” Graham explains, “even as the industry sets its sights on loftier goals than shepherding wealthy clients into outer space.”

Of those poll respondents with yearly incomes of $100,000 or more, 40 percent said they were likely to travel to space if they could afford it, Graham reports. “Fifty-five percent of respondents in that income bracket said they were unlikely or not too likely to make the journey, even if it was within their budget.”


For Graham’s full story on the poll findings, go to:

For the poll questions that were asked, including the public space travel query, go to:

Credit: NASA

They are dubbed “vibrotactile boots.”

New work at Draper Labs in Cambridge, Massachusetts makes use of sensors at the front of the boot to detect obstacles and alert the user through a combination of visual signals and vibrations applied to the feet.

Alison Gibson of Draper says her “booted” system of knowing the position of your legs on Mars can be challenging while wearing a bulky pressurized suit. Also, altered gravity high-stepping across Mars certainly doesn’t help.

Footnote: task at hand

According to Andrea Webb of Draper, “the system allows astronauts to focus on the task at hand instead of watching the ground,” she said in a press statement.

Solid footing on Mars can be a real challenge, where reduced gravity and the constraints of a bulky pressured suit limit sensory feedback.

Credit: Dan Durda

Also, the protective helmet further limits an astronaut’s peripheral vision, forcing space explorers to lean forward and look down to see tripping hazards. In this environment, a punctured suit or damaged life support system can be fatal.

New approach

Point is, Draper researchers studied this problem and developed a new approach for how astronauts see and feel the terrain around them. By equipping a special boot with built-in sensors and tiny haptic motors that vibrate, the research team aims to give astronauts the information they need to stay safe.

“The boots have built-in sensors and vibration motors, all connected to a small microcontroller that processes the sensor data and determines which cue to send to the user,” says Alison Gibson, a Draper Fellow and former graduate student in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Credit: Bob Sauls – XP4D/Explore Mars, Inc. (used with permission)

Vibratory feedback

Gibson further advises that the front of each boot contains an ultrasonic range-finder, a proximity sensor and a six degree-of-freedom Inertial Measurement Unit. The vibratory feedback delivered to the feet is supplemented with an augmented reality visual display that also indicates the location and proximity of approaching obstacles.

Draper and MIT research in this area could have applications in the design of navigation systems for the visually impaired, and serve as an added safety measure for first responders and firefighters as they navigate smoke-filled rooms, according to the Draper press statement.

Curiosity image of wheel – coated with Mars mud?
Credit: NASA/JPL

There is increasing discussion and debate concerning the exploration of Mars and how best to search for past/present life on the Red Planet.

One element of the deliberation is what constitutes a “Special Region” on Mars.

This series of images spans a period of 15 weeks shows a pair of fresh, middle-latitude craters on Mars. The bright material is water ice that was uncovered by the meteorite impact. Sublimation of the ice during the Martian summer leaves behind a dust layer that gradually thickens to the point where it obscures the ice. The impact responsible for these craters had not yet occurred by June 4, 2008, but had occurred by Aug. 10, 2008.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

A Special Region is a region classified by the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) where terrestrial organisms might readily propagate, or thought to have a high potential for existence of Martian life forms. This is understood to apply to a region on the Red Planet where liquid water occurs, or can occasionally happen, centered on our current understanding of requirements for life.

Impact craters

“I think many of the recent Martian meteorite impact craters imaged by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing white ice in the interior of freshly exposed craters and their ejecta blanket should give us pause as to what ‘Special Regions’ on Mars are,” says Barry E. DiGregorio, director for the International Committee Against Mars Sample Return (ICAMSR). “In fact, every time I look into the night sky and see Mars,” he adds, “I think I am looking at a ‘Special Region.’”

The bright material conspicuous in this image was excavated from below the surface and deposited nearby by a 2008 impact that dug a crater about 8 meters (26 feet) in diameter. The extent of the bright patch was large enough for the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, an instrument on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, to obtain information confirming the material to be water ice.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

DiGregorio suggests that no one at NASA can be sure that a rover or lander has not been inadvertently sent to a Special Region where wet zones persist.

“That’s because we apparently can’t detect the nearness of small amounts of evaporating water ice moving through the top soil or regolith,” DiGregorio notes.

Credit: NASA/JPL

Wheel proof – wet soil?

To enhance his case, DiGregorio points to images relayed from NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. The images were acquired via the robot’s Mastcam camera on Sol’s 528-532.



“As you can see, the ‘soil’ adhering to the wheels is mud-like and wet – similar to a wet clay. So here you have an incident where Curiosity drove right over the top of a Special Region zone and it went unreported – until now,” DiGregorio concludes.


Responds John Rummel of the SETI Institute: “It is interesting that surface material can cling to the wheels of Curiosity, but it doesn’t need to be ‘wet’ to do that. The material has been compacted by a one-ton rover! And recall that a similar ‘clinginess’ was seen with subsurface samples taken by the Phoenix Mars lander back in 2008. At the time, the clingy soil became loose after the sample was left in the sun for awhile, possibly because that affected the hygroscopic nature of salts in the sample. Such material would likely be too salty for microbes even if ‘damp’ due to low water activity, but perhaps not always.’

Murray Buttes and Mars explorer.
Artwork credit: Sean Doran



The pages of the Astrobiology journal have served as the epicenter of new, on-going dialogue regarding future exploration of Mars and the search for life on that distant world.

Go to:

Searching for Life on Mars Before It Is Too Late

Four Fallacies and an Oversight: Searching for Martian Life

The Red Planet as seen by Europe’s Mars Express.
Credit: ESA/D. O’Donnell – CC BY-SA IGO

A recent article in the journal Astrobiology has caused a dust-up about Mars.

Titled “Searching for Life on Mars Before It Is Too Late” the article makes the case that planetary protection policies as we conceive them today “will no longer be valid as human arrival will inevitably increase the introduction of terrestrial and organic contaminants and that could jeopardize the identification of indigenous Mars life.”

Lead author of the forum article is Alberto G. Fairén, a visiting scientist at Cornell University.

Change of strategy

The forum article, in short form, proposed a twofold change of strategy regarding exploration of the Red Planet:

New planetary prowler – the NASA Mars 2020 rover – scouring the Red Planet for select samples for eventual return to Earth.
Credit: NASA/JPL

First – allow immediate access to the Special Regions for vehicles with the cleanliness level of Curiosity, Mars2020, or Europe’s ExoMars.

Second – existing laboratory robotic technology must be made flight ready in the search for biochemical evidence of life, and in particular, the development of robotic nucleic acid sequencing instrumentations for future in situ detection and/or sample return.


In response, a new fast-track forum article in Astrobiology – “Four Fallacies and an Oversight: Searching for Martian Life” — has been authored by John Rummel of the SETI Institute and Catharine “Cassie” Conley, head of NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection.

Those fallacies as flagged by Rummel and Conley are:

  • The contention that evidence of martian life would best be found in Special Regions is not well supported
  • Evidence and cost estimations based on real mission systems suggest that cleaning robotic missions to currently required levels is in fact not a significant impediment to accessing candidate Special Regions
  • The claim that martian life could convincingly be identified by nucleic acid sequence comparison, if it were obtained from a Special Region contaminated with Earth life, is invalidated by recent evidence of highly divergent life on Earth
  • The idea that exploration with dirty robots is urgent because human exploration is imminent seems to ignore the possibility that contamination from poorly prepared robotic missions could spread as easily as contamination associated with human missions.

Mars expedition probes the promise that Mars was a home address for past, possibly life today.
Credit: NASA


Explore Mars properly

Additionally, Rummel and Conley write that an oversight in the earlier forum article is that it failed to acknowledge the possibility that introduced Earth organisms could cause damage both to martian resources we hope will be available to future human explorers and—considering that many Earth organisms are facultative pathogens (e.g., Clostridium tetani)—potentially to the explorers themselves.

“There is still time to explore Mars properly,” the Mars experts in the new article conclude.

Careful contamination control

“Without careful contamination control, however, robotic life-detection instruments could obtain a false positive or equivocal detection of life on Mars,” they write. In fact, they add that the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument on the NASA Curiosity Mars rover has already detected Earth contamination at levels that swamp out possible signals from Mars.

“If an astronaut exploring Mars is likely to run into martian organisms, that fact should be well understood before landing there. Inadvertent exposure might affect astronaut health and their permission to return to Earth. Exposure to unknown Earth organisms could be a source of confusion in that circumstance,” Rummel and Conley state.


To access both of these important Astrobiology papers, go to:


“Four Fallacies and an Oversight: Searching for Martian Life” at:



Credit: HI-SEAS


An 8-month Mars analog isolation mission is wrapping up today at the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) facility at the Mauna Loa volcano, Big Island, Hawaii.

The six-person crew that began the simulated mission in January is comprised of four men and two women.

Credit: HI-SEAS

The purpose of the mock Mars mission — backed by NASA — is to directly address the “Risk of Performance Decrements Due to Inadequate Cooperation, Coordination, Communication, and Psychosocial Adaptation within a Team.”

According to a HI-SEAS statement: “We need to identify psychological and psychosocial factors, measures and combinations thereof that can be used to compose highly effective crews for autonomous, long duration and/or distance exploration missions.”

Go to this informative video by University of Hawai‘i News on HI-SEAS, published on Sep 15, 2017. Go to:

Credit: HI-SEAS

China’s Tianzhou-1 resupply craft has completed docking and refueling tasks with uncrewed Tiangong-2 space lab.
Credit: CCTV

China’s Tianzhou-1 resupply craft has backed away from the uncrewed Tiangong-2 space lab. The Sunday departure at 4:15 p.m. (Beijing time) had the cargo ship move to an orbit of roughly 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth.

The Chinese Xinhua news agency reports that Tianzhou-1 will continue to carry out experiments before nose-diving into Earth’s atmosphere. Pre de-orbit, the supply ship will gather experience for building and operating the country’s larger space station in the 2020s.

In-orbit refueling

Tianzhou-1 was launched on April 20 from south China’s Hainan Province.

The craft completed automated docking with the orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab on April 22.

The two docked spacecraft completed the first in-orbit refueling on April 27, a second refueling on June 15 and a final one, yesterday on September 16.

Griffith Observatory Event