Archive for August, 2019

Could the presence of methane gas signal life on Mars?
Credit: Newcastle University


Bursts of methane on Mars have been detected by NASA’s Curiosity rover and remote ground-based sensing observations.

Seasonal changes in methane background levels and “methane spikes” have been detected on the spot on Mars a few feet above the Martian surface. Larger methane plumes has been identified via ground-based remote sensing, however their origin have not yet been adequately explained.

Methane can be created over time through both geological and biological routes. Since its first detection in the Martian atmosphere in 2003, there has been speculation about the source of the gas.

Does the presence of this gas signal life on the Red Planet?

Selfie of Curiosity Mars rover on the prowl.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Rock erosion ruled out

New research by Newcastle University scientists in the UK appears to rule out that wind erosion of Mars rocks is eking trapped methane from fluid inclusions and fractures on the planet’s surface.

“Ultimately, what we’re trying to discover is if there’s the possibility of life existing on planets other than our own,” explains Emmal Safi, a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences and lead author of the just-published research.

The new work – “Aeolian abrasion of rocks as a mechanism to produce methane in the Martian atmosphere” – appears in Scientific Reports.

June 2018 graphic relates that Curiosity rover detected seasonal changes in atmospheric methane in Gale Crater.
Credit: NASA/JPL

Different rock types

“The questions are – where is this methane coming from, and is the source biological? That’s a massive question and to get to the answer we need to rule out lots of other factors first,” said principal investigator, Jon Telling, a geochemist also based in the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences at Newcastle University.

The scientists realized that one potential source of the methane that people hadn’t really looked at in any detail before was wind erosion, releasing gases trapped within rocks.

High resolution imagery from Mars orbit over the last decade have shown that winds on the Red Planet can drive much higher local rates of sand movement, and hence potential rates of sand erosion, than previously recognized.

The research used new data alongside previously published data to consider the likely methane contents of different rock types and whether they have the capacity to produce measurable levels of methane when worn away.

Europe’s Mars Express orbiter matches methane spike measured by Curiosity
Credit: ESA/Giuranna et al (2019)

Unlikely scenario

The upshot: The team found that for wind erosion to be a viable mechanism to produce detectable methane in the Martian atmosphere, the methane content of any gases trapped within rocks would have to rival those of some of the richest hydrocarbon containing shales on Earth – a highly unlikely scenario, they found.

Funded by the UK Space Agency, the study concludes that the cause of methane spikes on Mars is still unknown.

“It’s still an open question. Our paper is just a little part of a much bigger story,” Safi says.

Other sources

“From the data put forward in this paper, we conclude that aeolian abrasion of basaltic or sedimentary rocks on the Martian surface is an unlikely mechanism to produce methane concentrations detected by in situ observations from the MSL [Mars Science Laboratory] Curiosity rover and remote ground-based sensing observations,” the research team explains.

Curiosity Front Hazcam Right B image taken on Sol 2429, June 7, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech



“Hence, we suggest that other sources of methane gas must be inferred to explain both the seasonal variations in background atmospheric methane and higher concentration plumes detected on Mars,” the researchers conclude.








To read the entire research paper – “Aeolian abrasion of rocks as a mechanism to produce methane in the Martian atmosphere” – go to Scientific Reports, a Nature Research journal at:


Curiosity Front Hazcam Left B image acquired on Sol 2494, August 12, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2495 duties.

Recent Curiosity planning began with a bit of a shuffle as scientists learned that the sample cup that was used for Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite preconditioning over the weekend didn’t seal as well as desired, reports Vivian Sun, a planetary geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Curiosity Rear Hazcam Left B photo taken on Sol 2494, August 12, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“This preconditioning step is required before we can perform SAM Evolved Gas Analysis (EGA) on the ‘Glen Etive’ drill sample,” Sun adds.

In response, Mars researchers decided to redo the SAM preconditioning activity using another cup, in addition to running another Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument (CheMin) analysis.

Curiosity Mastcam Left image taken on Sol 2492, August 10, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

These changes freed up additional time for remote sensing observations in a recently scripted two sol plan for the rover.

Curiosity Navcam Right B photo acquired on Sol 2493, August 11, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Retargeting drill hole

Also planned were a variety of Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) observations, including a retargeting of the Glen Etive drill hole in order to better adjust the focus parameters of the instrument.

We identified a rock called ‘Scone’ with nicely exposed layers that we will sample with a vertical raster, and will also target another bedrock target called ‘Crannog,’ Sun explains.

Curiosity Mastcam Right photo acquired on Sol 2492, August 10, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS




Long distance imaging

There was also time to take a long distance Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) mosaic of the sulfate unit to image sedimentary structures in these distant rocks.








Supporting Mastcam documentation images were planned for each of these observations, as well as Navcam movies designed for determining cloud height,” Sun concludes. “If all goes well with the redo of the SAM preconditioning, we’ll be continuing along the drill sol path in no time!”

Curiosity ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager photo taken on Sol 2492, August 10, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Air Force space plane in Earth orbit for over 666 days.
Credit: Boeing/Inside Outer Space Screen Grab

The puzzling and classified U.S. Air Force X-37B space plane appears ready to set a new milestone in its hush-hush current mission: Breaking a new long-duration record in circling the Earth.

Also tagged as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) – 5 mission, this space plane was lofted into low Earth orbit back on September 7, 2017.

Hurled skyward atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the space plane is approaching a milestone for the program.

OTV-5 test image taken June 29.
Credit: Ralf Vandebergh

Last and lengthiest

The last and lengthiest Air Force’s X-37B mission, OTV-4 — after 718 days of flight — touched down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility May 7, 2017 – a first for the program. All prior missions had ended with a tarmac touchdown at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“It is our goal to continue advancing the X-37B OTV so it can more fully support the growing space community,” said Randy Walden, the director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office in a statement about the current spacecraft in orbit,” he said.

X-37B handout.
Credit: Boeing

New flight-duration record

Each X-37B/OTV mission has set a new flight-duration record for the program:

OTV-1 began April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.

OTV-2 began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit.

OTV-3 chalked up nearly 675 days in orbit before finally coming down on Oct. 17, 2014.

OTV-4 conducted on-orbit experiments for 718 days during its mission, extending the total number of days spent in space for the OTV program at that point to 2,085 days. It was launched in May 2015 and landed in May 2017.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 4 (OTV-4), the Air Force’s unmanned, reusable space plane, landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility May 7, 2017.
Credit: USAF

Adversaries don’t know

It is always touch and go regarding what can/cannot be said about the space plane program.

However, former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson laid out some basic details of the X-37B’s mission during an appearance at the Aspen Security Forum last month.

“The Air Force has acknowledged that we own a space plane, the X-37 – looks like a small version of the shuttle, but it’s unmanned. One of the things that’s fascinating about that space plane is that it can do an orbit that looks like an egg, and when it’s close to the Earth it is close enough to the atmosphere to turn where it is, which means our adversaries don’t know – and that happens on the far side of the Earth from our adversaries – they don’t know where it’s going to come up next, and we know that drives them nuts,” Wilson said.

Last Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission touched down at NASA ‘s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility May 7, 2017.
Credit: Michael Martin/USAF

Observing orbits

Ted Molczan is a Canada-based amateur astronomer who specializes in observing satellites and analyzing their orbits.

In commenting on Wilson’s statement: “The description is severely lacking in detail, but it appears to be of a maneuver made at the perigee of an elliptical orbit. The phrase ‘close enough to the atmosphere to turn where it is,’ suggests that the atmosphere plays some role in changing the orbital plane, Molczan told Inside Outer Space. “I am not familiar with maneuvers in the atmosphere, but I can comment on plane-changes, which consist of a change of inclination and/or longitude of the ascending node.”

Back to hangar for another flight day. U.S. Air Force X-37B/OTV-4 is rolled into facility after its May 7 landing at Kennedy Space Center.
Credit: Michael Martin/SAF

Satellite trackers

Molczan said his fellow sky watchers have tracked significant portions of all five X-37B missions to-date.

“We detected only circular orbits. Maneuvers consisted almost exclusively of changes of altitude. The few small plane changes that were detected did not disrupt tracking of the spacecraft. In some cases, it took weeks or months before we detected newly launched spacecraft in orbit. I doubt that large maneuvers occurred prior to our initial observations, but I cannot exclude the possibility,” Molczan said.

Tantalizing thought

Bottom line: Exactly when the OTV-5 space plane will land is unknown.

Meanwhile, a tantalizing thought: Could the program shoot for two X-37B vehicles in Earth orbit at the same time?

According to some launch websites, a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket will launch the AFSPC 7 mission for the U.S. Air Force this December. The mission’s primary payload is the X-37B, with liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station – SLC-41.

For more information on the X-37B project, go to:

Military Space Plane: Headed for New Record?

Also, go to this 8/5/2019 Defense News report at:

Credit: ESA


There’s concern regarding the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars-2020 becoming ExoMars-2022.

The issue involves parachute testing and a series of snags to flight qualify the system. ExoMars teams continue to troubleshoot the parachute design following an unsuccessful high-altitude drop test last week.

This ESA ExoMars mission comprises a rover and surface science platform, destined for launch next year. The mission is slated for liftoff within a July 25–August 13, 2020 launch window, arriving at Mars in March 2021.

Artist’s impression of the ExoMars 2020 rover and Russia’s stationary surface platform in background.
ESA/ATG medialab

Oh chute!

In a just-issued ESA statement:

As part of the planned ExoMars testing prior to launch, several parachute tests were conducted at the Swedish Space Corporation Esrange site. The first took place last year and demonstrated the successful deployment and inflation of the largest main parachute in a low-altitude drop test from 1.2 kilometers, deployed by a helicopter. The parachute has a diameter of 115 feet (35 meters) – the largest parachute ever to fly on a Mars mission.

“On May 28 this year, the deployment sequence of all four parachutes was tested for the first time from a height of 29 km – released from a stratospheric helium balloon. While the deployment mechanisms activated correctly, and the overall sequence was completed, both main parachute canopies suffered damage.”

Following hardware inspection, adaptations were implemented to the design of the parachutes and bags ready for the next high-altitude test, which was conducted on August 5, this time just focusing on the larger 35-meter diameter parachute.

Sizes of key components of the ExoMars 2020 mission.
Credit: ESA

Canopy damage

According to the ESA statement, preliminary assessment shows that the initial steps were completed correctly, however damages to the canopy were observed prior to inflation, similar to the previous test. As a result, the test module descended under the drag of the pilot chute alone.

According to ESA, a further high-altitude test is already foreseen for the first main parachute before the end of 2019. The next qualification attempt of the second main parachute is then anticipated for early 2020.

Ground simulations

Additionally, and in parallel, ExoMars teams are investigating the possibility to manufacture additional parachute test models and conducting ground-based simulations to mimic the dynamic nature of parachute extraction, since there are not many opportunities for full-scale high-altitude drop tests.

Lastly, in addition to the regular forum of exchanges between ESA and NASA experts, a workshop of Mars parachute specialists will convene next month to share knowledge.

NASA Mars Exploration Rover parachute undergoes rigorous testing within NASA Ames facility.
Credit: NASA

Time running short

Inside Outer Space sources underscore that the ExoMars mission does have a far more complex parachute decelerator system than those used for NASA Mars missions.

Whether ExoMars is experiencing a parachute problem or other things associated with the parachute system is not clear.

And with time running short, ESA/NASA discussions can be muddled due to Technical Assistance Agreement (TAA) and International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) rules and regulations.

NASA Curiosity mission parachute testing.
Credit: NASA

NASA nail biting

On the NASA side, the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project – Spirit and Opportunity – went through similar nail biting as parachute drop testing at China Lake encountered problems. A chute redesign was needed, along with use of the National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex (NFAC) at NASA Ames Research Center.

NASA’s mega-parachute for the Curiosity Mars lander mission underwent a total of six different tests between October 2007 and April 2009 within the NFAC. That parachute had 80 suspension lines, measured more than 50 meters (165 feet) in length, and opened to a diameter of nearly 51 feet (16 meters).

Curiosity Front Hazcam Left B image acquired on Sol 2490, August 8, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2491 tasks.

Over the weekend, Curiosity successfully dropped off a portion of the Glen Etive drill sample. But reports Claire Newman, an atmospheric scientist at Aeolis Research in Pasadena, California, “for some reason, the sequence was interrupted, so no images of the portion were acquired.”

Diagnose the issue

Curiosity’s Remote Sensing Mast (RSM), on which the robot’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam), both Mastcams, and all four Navcams are mounted, briefly stopped pointing as commanded on Sol 2488.

Curiosity Navcam Right B image taken on Sol 2488, August 6, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The RSM worked well in the tests planned on sol 2489 and downlinked ahead of today’s planning, however. So while the engineers continue to diagnose the issue,” Newman explains, “such as whether it involves recent changes to the way we heat motors connected to the RSM, we used it again cautiously in the Sol 2490 plan.”

Avoid risk

This meant avoiding observations, Newman adds, that require the Mars researchers to look up from the surface or deck, to avoid any risk of dust piling up on lenses if the RSM became stuck there.

The net result was that most of the environmental science theme group’s cloud and dust monitoring activities could not be included, as all of them involve using Mastcam or Navcam to look near the horizon or higher up.

Curiosity Navcam Right B image taken on Sol 2488, August 6, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Monitoring the environment

In the Sol 2489 plan, the script included some attempted dust devil imaging using the Rear Hazcams, a more recent plan scientists focused on adding extra Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) one-hour extended blocks to measure air and ground temperature, pressure, humidity, and UV radiation.

“This should result in us measuring over 37 of the 48 Mars hours contained in this two-sol plan, compared to the 13 hours we’d have measured usually, including seven periods with 5 hours of continuous REMS,” Newman adds.

Curiosity Navcam Right B image taken on Sol 2490, August 8, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Long periods of continuous atmospheric data are useful for tracking weather patterns, atmospheric wave activity, and even clouds that we can detect in the REMS UV and ground temperature data after sunset,” Newman points out.

The environmental group also planned Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) and Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) observations.

Curiosity ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager photo acquired on Sol 2487, August 5, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Inlet imaging

Meanwhile, the geology science theme group planned to recover planned observations that were lost due to the RSM issue.

Because delivery of the Glen Etive sample to the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite inlet cover and documentation imaging did not complete, the highest priority for the Sol 2490 plan was to perform the SAM drop-off and do ChemCam Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectrometer (LIBS) observations of the drill hole, Newman notes.

Other activities were ChemCam and Mastcam observations of a single rock target “Argyll,” consisting of dark bedrock with a white vein, of “Dornock” and “Thrumster,” both containing sulfate veins, and of “Tap O Noth,” a nearby bedrock target.

Curiosity Rear Hazcam Left B image taken on Sol 2490, August 8, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Change detection

“Finally, further Mastcam imaging was performed to monitor any surface changes that may occur as a result of strong winds or intense atmospheric vortices that are able to move sand and/or dust particles,” Newman says. “Targets of this imaging included the rover deck as well as images of two surface targets called ‘Dundee 1’ and ‘Dundee 2.’ These targets were chosen because they contain both sand and bedrock, which makes it easier to spot small changes between images, such as sand shifting slightly further onto the rock.”

Curiosity Rear Hazcam Right B photo taken on Sol 2489. August 7, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

These “change detection” studies are repeated at roughly equal intervals over the Mars year, and help scientists understand how sand motion and dust lifting varies with season, Newman points out, “which in turn helps us to understand how dunes form, how the surface is eroded, and how dust storms occur.”




China’s Chang’e-4 farside lander/rover mission has been switched to “dormant mode” for the chilly lunar night.

The Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the China National Space Administration has also stated that the Yutu-2 rover has now chalked up 889 feet (271 meters) of wheeled exploration.

China’s Chang’e-4 probe was launched on Dec. 8, 2018, making the first-ever soft landing within the Von Kármán crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin on the farside of the Moon on January 3, 2019.

Chang’e-4 farside mission – lander and Yutu-2 rover

Eighth lunar day

According to China’s Xinhua news agency, during the eighth lunar day of the Moon mission, the scientific instruments on the lander and rover worked well, and a new batch of scientific detection data were sent to the core research team for analysis.

A lunar day equals 14 days on Earth. A lunar night is the same length. The Chang’e-4 probe switches to dormant mode during the lunar night due to lack of solar power, adds the Xinhua story.

Curiosity Mastcam Right image taken on Sol 2486, August 4, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2488 duties and there’s now official word on Curiosity Mars rover’s recent success.

On Sunday morning the team received the message that Curiosity’s latest drill hole was successful at “Glen Etive.” This is the 22nd full-depth drill hole on Mars, and we can celebrate its success on this final day of Earth-year 7 of the mission,” reports Roger Wiens, a geochemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Clay unit: 3rd hole

Wiens adds that “Glen Etive” is the third hole in the clay unit. The other two holes, “Kilmarie” and “Aberladie,” were drilled near each other in April at a lower stratigraphic position.

This hole was achieved with no percussion, Wiens adds, and its depth is greater than 4 centimeters.

Curiosity Front Hazcam Left B image taken on Sol 2488, August 6, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Tailings from the drill hole will be used for analyses of this outcrop by the robot’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite and its Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument (CheMin), as well as the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI).

Hole-Mars observations

Wiens reports that Curiosity’s ChemCam will attempt to shoot down into the drill hole to analyze the rock layers on the wall of the hole. The drill hole is the size of a dime, he notes.

“These are fresh rock surfaces and should generally represent the same material that SAM and CheMin analyze. It is dark in the hole, so the autofocus feature of ChemCam is significantly challenged,” Wiens adds. “Getting a good image down the hole requires overexposing the other parts of the image so we can see better in the dark part of the hole.”

Curiosity Navcam Right B image acquired on Sol 2488, August 6, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Sample material

The robot’s arm will be busy with drill portion characterization. The activity creates “test portions” in order to make sure that there is sample material in the drill and that the portions are of the expected amount (for instrument safety), Wiens points out.

“One is delivered to the ground and two to the back of the closed SAM inlet cover. The latter is the best ‘rehearsal’ for dropping portions to the instruments, since it also allows us to gauge the amount of deflection by wind at the height of the rover deck. Mastcam images are used for documentation in all cases,” Wiens adds.

Curiosity Surveys ‘Teal Ridge’: This panorama of a location called “Teal Ridge” was captured on Mars by the Mast Camera, or Mastcam, on NASA’s Curiosity rover on June 18, 2019, the 2,440th Martian day, or sol, of the mission.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Slip check

Lastly, the robot’s Mastcam is slated to also take a mosaic of the area around the drill hole, and ChemCam will shoot one additional nearby target, “Argyll.” The Hazcams will take images for a slip check of the rover.

Wiens concludes by noting that the robot’s Navcam will do a dust-devil movie and a horizon movie to look for clouds. Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD),  the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS), and the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) onboard the rover will also take data.

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This is a well-researched, well written, and handsomely illustrated volume by well-known space expert and historian, Rod Pyle. Documented in its pages is the flourishing, new era in space exploration – where humanity is headed and why.

Space 2.0 is divided into 18 sweeping and excellent chapters, a collective that space-aged as well as newbies will find top-notch reflection and a well-spring/vortex of what next. This book has been done in collaboration with the National Space Society, an organization that continues to help shape long-term plans for exploration, utilization, and settlement. Pyle is also editor of the Society’s Ad Astra magazine.

Of particular value is the book’s look at the burgeoning space entrepreneurial community. As Pyle explains, “there are many investors, both large and small, eager to finance the people creating Space 2.0 and expanding its horizons.”

As Pyle also makes clear: “We are now in a far better position to embark upon a sustainable program of human spaceflight and space development, and toward a permanent, robust human presence off Earth that will offer wide-ranging benefits for everyone who participates, directly or indirectly.” All that duly noted, welcome to Space 2.0.

In this volume there’s no room for pessimism! Today, in the United States and other spacefaring countries, humankind is embarking on a new space age, Pyle reports. This profound time in history will surely lead to settlement beyond our home planet, and the author expertly guides the reader along on this weighty and wonderful trajectory.

Space 2.0 is must reading. You’ll find great solace about humanity’s hunger – past and future tense — to shoot for the stars.

For more information on this book, go to:


Geologist Harrison Schmitt performs Moon tasks during Apollo 17 mission in December 1972.
Credit: NASA


A new study has determined that the Moon is significantly older than previously believed. Earlier research had estimated the Moon to have formed approximately 150 million years after the solar system’s formation.

This new finding has been spearheaded by Earth scientists at the University of Cologne’s Institute of Geology and Mineralogy, constraining the age of the Moon to roughly 50 million years after the formation of the solar system – 4.56 billion years ago.

Apollo 12 sample is an ilmenite basalt. It has glass on it, deposited by the splash of material when another basalt was struck by an impactor. Samples like 12054 allow scientists to reconstruct the history of the Moon with the stories they tell.
Credit: Maxwell Thiemens

Range of samples

To achieve these results, the scientists analyzed the chemical composition of a diverse range of samples – nearly 30 specimens — collected during the Apollo lunar landing missions.

Determining the age of the Moon is also important to understand how and at which time the Earth formed, and how it evolved at the very beginning of the solar system.

Earth’s Moon is likely to have formed in the aftermath of a giant collision between a Mars-sized planetary body and the early Earth. Over time, the Moon accreted from the cloud of material blasted into Earth’s orbit.

Earth’s Moon continues to surprise.
Credit: NASA

The newborn Moon was covered in a magma ocean, which formed different types of rocks as it cooled. These time capsules have recorded information about the formation of the Moon, and are found today on the lunar surface.

Natural radioactive clock

The Cologne scientists used the relationship between the rare elements hafnium, uranium and tungsten as a probe to understand the amount of melting that occurred to generate the Moon’s mare basalts, i.e., the black regions on the lunar surface. The study could identify distinct trends amongst the different suites of rocks, which now allows for a better understanding of the behavior of these key rare elements.

According to a University of Cologne press statement:

“Studying hafnium and tungsten on the Moon are particularly important because they constitute a natural radioactive clock of the isotope hafnium-182 decaying into tungsten-182. This radioactive decay only lasted for the first 70 million years of the solar system. By combining the hafnium and tungsten information measured in the Apollo samples with information from laboratory experiments, the study finds that the Moon already started solidifying as early as 50 million years after solar system formed.”

Credit: JAXA/NHK

Timing and evolution

Maxwell Thiemens, former University of Cologne researcher and lead author of the study notes: “Mankind’s first steps on another world exactly 50 years ago yielded samples which let us understand the timing and evolution of the Moon. As the Moon’s formation was the final major planetary event after Earth’s formation, the age of the Moon provides a minimum age for Earth as well.”

The study — Early Moon formation inferred from hafnium-tungsten systematics — was published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

More information about this research paper can be found here:

Roughly 35 centimeter standoff Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo of the Glen Etive 1 target after brushing and the preload test. Photo produced on July 31, 2019, Sol 2482.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2485 duties.

“We are go for drilling at Glen Etive 1,” reports Lucy Thompson, a planetary geologist at University of New Brunswick.

Curiosity MAHLI photo produced on Sol 2484, August 2, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Scientists have received the results of the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) and Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) compositional analysis of the prospective drill target, as well as the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) imaging of the area both before and after a preload test.

Curiosity MAHLI photo produced on Sol 2484, August 2, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Force of drilling

“The preload test is exactly what it sounds like; exerting a load onto the surface bedrock to check that it can withstand the force of drilling,” Thompson explains. “The engineers and science team assessed the results of these analyses and concluded that it is safe to drill the Glen Etive target. Therefore, the weekend plan is dominated by the drill activity, which will take place on the second sol of the plan.”

Curiosity Navcam Left B photo acquired on Sol 2483, August 1, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The robot managed to fit in some environmental science and a Mastcam 360°mosaic of its surrounding terrain on the first sol of the plan to provide context for our drill site, Thompson notes, “prior to the rover going to sleep in order to recharge itself for the power intensive drilling.”

Curiosity Rear Hazcam Left B photo taken on Sol 2484, August 2, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


The environmental observations include a ChemCam passive sky observation, a rear Hazcam dust devil movie, a Mastcam crater rim extinction and basic tau pointed towards the sun.

“We filled a post-drill science block with geological observations. These include observations of what will hopefully be a new drill hole and associated tailings on Mars, with ChemCam passive spectroscopy and remote microscopic imaging as well as Mastcam multispectral imaging,” Thompson reports.

Curiosity’s ChemCam will also continue to investigate the variation in chemistry of the bedrock in the vicinity of the drill target, firing its laser at the “Clarkly Hill” target. Mastcam will document the ChemCam target.

Curiosity ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager photo acquired on Sol 2484, August 2, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Environmental monitoring

Curiosity is slated to wake up and carry out an early morning science block with some more environmental monitoring including a Mastcam full tau pointed towards the sun, a Navcam zenith movie, suprahorizon movie, line of sight image and 360°sky survey.

Standard background Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) and Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) passive measurements are also planned.

Curiosity Mastcam Right photo of dust removal brush taken on Sol 2483, August 1, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

 22nd drill hole

“Everyone on the team will be eagerly awaiting the first downlinked data after the drill activity, to see if we have our 22nd drill hole on Mars destined for Curiosity’s analytical lab,” Thompson points out.

If successful, next week should see drop off of sample to the robot’s Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument (CheMin), Thompson concludes, and the preliminary mineralogical results, which Mars researchers can compare with previous drill holes within Glen Torridon and the Murray formation.