Archive for September, 2017

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.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With the NASA/ESA Cassini spacecraft nose-diving into Saturn on September 15, there are a number of moving messages from those attached to the now-gone spacecraft.

Among them, Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team leader and director of the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “We came. We Saw. It’s done.”


Dying essence

Porco noted on the scientist’s “Captain’s Log” via her Facebook page: “A kiloton explosion, spread out against the sky in a pyrrhic display of light and fire, a dazzling flash to signal the dying essence of a lone emissary from another world. As if the myths of old had foretold the future, the great patriarch will consume his child. At that point, that golden machine, so dutiful and strong, will enter the realm of history, and the toils and triumphs of this long march will be done,” she writes.

Porco underscores those that were appointed long ago to undertake the journey.

“It has been a taxing three decades, requiring a level of dedication that I could not have predicted, and breathless times when we sprinted for the duration of a marathon. But in return, we were blessed to spend our lives working and playing in that promised land beyond the Sun,” she adds.

Cassini navigation team watch data come in from the spacecraft during its final plunge into Saturn, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky


Cassini team members embrace after the spacecraft was deliberately plunged into Saturn, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Historic epoch

Cassini’s imaging team served as the “documentarians” of Cassini’s historic epoch and returned a stirring visual record of the spacecraft’s travels around Saturn and the glories that were found there. “This is our gift to the citizens of planet Earth,” Porco notes.

“It is doubtful we will soon see a mission as richly suited as Cassini return to this ringed world and shoulder a task as colossal as we have borne over the last 27 years,” Porco concludes: “To have served on this mission has been to live the rewarding life of an explorer of our time, a surveyor of distant worlds. We wrote our names across the sky. We could not have asked for more.”

Curiosity Front Hazcam Right B image acquired on Sol 1816, September 15, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Just sliding into Sol 1818, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover heads for a “soliday” on Sunday to get researchers back in synch with “Mars time” in Gale Crater.

That’s the update from Kenneth Herkenhoff a planetary geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona.

The focus of recent science planning was observations of the robot’s current workspace, including an experiment to acquire Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) and Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) data on a bedrock target before getting a brush off.

Brushable targets

MAHLI images of three potential Dust Removal Tool (DRT) targets were received and used to determine which of these small exposures could be brushed. One had small pebbles in the DRT ellipse, so could not be brushed, Herkenhoff adds, but both of the other targets (“Christmas Cove” and “Mitten Ledge”) are brushable.

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity acquired this image using its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on Sol 1816, September 15, 2017. MAHLI located on the turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“So the APXS will measure the chemistry of Christmas Cove before it is brushed off, then will be placed on the brushed spot to measure chemical differences,” Herkenhoff notes. MAHLI will image both targets before and after brushing, he explains, then acquire a full suite of images on a layered block dubbed “Whittum.”

Laser strikes

Also on Sol 1818, Curiosity’s Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) will shoot its laser at another layered bedrock block named “Medomak.”

The rover’s Mastcam is to image Medomak, the Sun, and the crater rim to measure dust opacity in the atmosphere. A nighttime operation of APXS is placing the instrument on Mitten Ledge for a long integration.

Passive spectra

Curiosity’s Sol 1819 duties that are planned involve a Navcam search for dust devils before ChemCam acquires passive spectra of Christmas Cove and Mitten Ledge.

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity acquired this image using its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on Sol 1816, September 15, 2017. MAHLI located on the turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


“Mastcam will then acquire multispectral observations of Christmas Cove and more distant “Jaquish Ledge” before the rover drives away,” Herkenhoff says.

After the drive, in addition to the standard imaging, the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) will execute two active integrations.

Winter on Mars

“Because the Martian winter is approaching, we are planning more heating, which reduces the power available for other activities,” Herkenhoff points out. Therefore, it has been difficult to fit all action items of the rover into the plan today, making for a challenging day.

Curiosity laser shots cross layered bedrock block named “Medomak.”
Curiosity ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager photo acquired on Sol 1818, September 17, 2017
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

“We had to shorten or delete some scientific observations, which was painful, but I’m happy with all of the science we were able to plan today,” Herkenhoff concludes.

Credit: National Institute for Public Policy

Foreign Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. National Security is a new monograph authored by Steve Lambakis and available from the National Institute for Public Policy, dated September 2017.

The monograph explains: “U.S. defense leaders must strive to guarantee U.S. freedom of action and provide a strong deterrent to aggressive behavior in space that prevents efforts by other nations to control orbits. These are the core interests of the United States in space.”

Credit: National Institute for Public Policy

“However much U.S. leaders and many of the American people and U.S. allies would never want to fight a war that extends into space, the United States must be prepared to defend its operations in that domain and, if necessary, fight through the loss of access to space capabilities. Space is an obvious place for the adversary to look to upset the advantage currently carried by the United States. This is why the nation’s leaders must act to defend and deter in space.”

Chapters focus on Expanding Exploitation of Space; Foreign Space and Counter-Space Developments; Protecting and Exercising U.S. Space Power; Implications for U.S. Defense Policy; and concludes with recommendations.

This report is available at:

Curiosity Navcam Right B image taken on Sol 1814, September 13, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is currently in Sol 1816, scouting about on Vera Rubin Ridge.

Planning for the rover’s science duties “was a bit like reading a great mystery novel,” reports Abigail Fraeman, a planetary geologist at NASA/JPL in Pasadena, California. “There were several twists and turns along the way, but we eventually reached an exciting ending that will reveal ‘Whodunit?’…or more accurately, what geologic forces had done to shape this landscape billions of years ago.”

Curiosity Front Hazcam Right B photo acquired on Sol 1815, September 13, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Raised broken rocks

A recent drive of the robot was successful, placed it in front of one of many meter-scale factures that criss-cross this area.

“These fractures are visible in high-resolution orbital images, and on the ground are surrounded by raised broken rocks that appear to be slightly more resistant to erosion than their surroundings,” Fraeman adds. “We are interested in understanding how these fractures formed, if they were conduits for ancient water, and why the rocks on their edges are raised.”

Curiosity Mastcam Left photo taken on Sol 1814, September 13, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Should I stay, should I go?

Curiosity researchers made a quick decision that rocks being observed were interesting enough to warrant staying for another couple of days to collect good contact science targets, rather than the single touch-and-go as had originally been planned, Fraeman notes.

The decision to stay had the geology theme group working to figure out what targets would be ideal for collecting Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) data.

Curiosity Mastcam Left photo acquired on Sol 1814, September 13, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“This entailed a lot of back and forth between the scientists and rover planners to understand which targets were reachable in the somewhat broken up workspace in front of us,” Fraeman points out, “and which were simply too far away or fragmented to access.”

Standoff images

After some work, team members found a great raised rock to examine with APXS and MAHLI, given the target name of “Schoppee.”

Curiosity ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager photo taken on Sol 1814, September 13, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

The plan called for taking 25 centimeter MAHLI standoff images of several other locations near the raised rim of the fracture to provide additional information about targets that can be studied in the weekend plan.

3D model

“Forgoing the drive also allowed us to have time for some morning remote sensing before the contact science,” Fraeman says. During that time, on tap are Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) observations of targets “Elwell,” “Bragdon,” and “Graffam,” as well as corresponding Mastcam documentation imaging.

Curiosity Rear Hazcam Left B image acquired on Sol 1815, September 13, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Additional remote sensing is also on the checklist, including a ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) Z-stack observation (used to make a 3D model) of fine laminations in the target “Phoney Island,” a corresponding Mastcam observation, and many environmental measurements in afternoon and early morning hours, Fraeman concludes.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona



New roadmap

A new traverse map has been issued by JPL, showing the ground track of the robot since landing in August 2012.

The new map shows the route driven by Curiosity through the 1814 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars, as of September 13, 2017.

Numbering of the dots along the line indicate the sol number of each drive. North is up. The scale bar is 1 kilometer (~0.62 mile).

From Sol 1812 to Sol 1814, Curiosity had driven a straight line distance of about 30.77 feet (9.38 meters), bringing the rover’s total odometry for the mission to 10.80 miles (17.38 kilometers).

The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.



We sit at a pivotal moment for John F. Kennedy’s legacy of space innovation.

Private enterprise is ramping up spaceflight efforts.

A new administration in Washington, D.C. is pondering a new vision for America’s space program.

Deep-dive conversation

This POLITICO event on September 12 convened experts for a deep-dive conversation to explore the possibilities and risks of what could be a historic transformation in space innovation and policy.

Is there a new vision for American space innovation that will capture the imagination of America -and what will it take to get there?

View of the planet Earth from space during a sunrise.
Credit: SWRI

Spotlight speakers

Featured speakers at this event:

  • John Logsdon, Founding Director and Professor Emeritus, Space Policy Institute, The George Washington University
  • Alex MacDonald, Senior Economic Advisor, NASA
  • Teasel Muir-Harmony, Curator, Space History Department, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
  • Bob Richards, Founder and CEO, Moon Express
  • Secretary Heather Wilson, Principal Space Adviser, U.S. Department of Defense
  • Eric Stallmer, President, Commercial Spaceflight Federation
  • Jamie Morin, Vice President and Executive Director of the Center for Space Policy and Strategy, The Aerospace Corporation

To view this event, go to:

A new map reveals quantities of water trapped in the lunar soil. The amounts increase toward the poles, suggesting that much of the water was implanted by the solar wind (yellow dots mark Apollo landing sites).
Credit: Milliken Lab/Brown University

Water as a resource in future lunar exploration has been deemed critical. Now there’s a map to help determine whether or not water could be worthwhile to extract, either as drinking water for astronauts or to produce fuel.

The study, published in Science Advances, builds on the initial discovery in 2009 of water and a related molecule — hydroxyl, which consists of one atom each of hydrogen and oxygen — in the lunar soil.

“The signature of water is present nearly everywhere on the lunar surface, not limited to the polar regions as previously reported,” said the study’s lead author, Shuai Li, who performed the work while a Ph.D. student at Brown University and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii.

Roadmap for resources

“This is a roadmap to where water exists on the surface of the Moon,” says Ralph Milliken, an associate professor at Brown and Li’s co-author.

The process of water formation in the lunar soil “is active and happening today,” Milliken adds. “This raises the possibility that water may re-accumulate after extraction, but we need to better understand the physics of why and how this happens to understand the timescale over which water may be renewed.”

Furthermore, the researchers note that they are only sensing the upper millimeter or so of soil, and they can’t say for sure what the water content is like underneath that. “The distribution of water with depth could make a big difference in terms of how much water is actually there,” Milliken says.

Credit: Milliken Lab/Brown University

Good starting point

Nevertheless, the researchers say the study provides a good starting point for thinking about how lunar water resources might be utilized in the future.

“It remains to be seen whether extraction could be feasible,” Milliken concludes. “But these results show us what the range of water availability across the surface is so we can start thinking about where we might want to go to get it and whether it makes economic sense to do so.”

The research was funded by the NASA Lunar Advanced Science and Exploration Research Program (NNX12AO63G).

For a copy of their research, “Water on the surface of the Moon as seen by the Moon Mineralogy Mapper: Distribution, abundance, and origins,” go to:

Curiosity Navcam Left B image taken on Sol 1814, September 13, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has just begun Sol 1815 science duties – and the scenery is outstanding.

Curiosity continues the ascent up Vera Rubin Ridge. The focus of a last weekend plan was on carefully documenting the changes in stratigraphy as the robot leaves the Murray bedrock.

For the robot, there is a bevy of interesting targets and contrasting colors, note rover science team members.

Curiosity Navcam Left B image taken on Sol 1814, September 13, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Stunning views

“As we’ve seen from the past several weeks and months of imaging, Curiosity’s approach to and ascent of the Vera Rubin Ridge (VRR) has provided us with stunning views of the Mount Sharp terrain,” reports Rachel Kronyak, a planetary geologist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “Our parking spot after this weekend’s drive was no exception.”

Curiosity Rear Hazcam Right B photo acquired on Sol 1814, September 13, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity’s action plan is to continue its trek up the lower strata of the VRR and have no shortage of multi-colored bedrock targets to image and analyze.

Dark bedrock target

A two sol plan – Sol 1814, 1815 — scripted a touch-and-go Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) analysis, Kronyak adds, plus a full suite of Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photos of the dark bedrock target “Pumpkin Nob.”

“We’ll also perform a multispectral Mastcam observation on ‘Weymouth Point,’ a region of VRR terrain just ahead of Curiosity,” Kronyak notes. Following a drive by the rover, on tap is taking standard post-drive images and a Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) active observation.

Curiosity Front Hazcam Left B image acquired on Sol 1814, September 12, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars environment

On Sol 1815, scientists have put together a short mid-day science block, during which environmental researchers will conduct a suprahorizon movie, a dust devil survey and standard Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) observations.