Probing The Insides of Mars to Learn How Rocky Planets Are Formed

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An artist illustration of the InSight lander on Mars. InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is designed to look for tectonic activity and meteorite impacts, study how much heat is still flowing through the planet, and track Mars’ wobble as it orbits the sun. While InSight is a Mars mission, it will help answer key questions about the formation of the other rocky planets of the solar system and exoplanets beyond. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In the known history of our 4.5-billion-year-old solar system,  the insides of but one planet have been explored and studied.  While there’s a lot left to know about the crust, the mantle and the core of the Earth, there is a large and vibrant field dedicated to that learning.

Sometime next month, an extensive survey of the insides of a second solar system planet will begin.  That planet is Mars and, assuming safe arrival, the work will start after the InSight lander touches down on November 26.

This is not a mission that will produce dazzling images and headlines about the search for life on Mars.  But in terms of the hard science it is designed to perform, InSight has the potential to tell us an enormous amount about the makeup of Mars, how it formed, and possibly why is it but one-third the size of its terrestrial cousins, Earth and Venus.

“We know a lot about the surface of Mars, we know a lot about its atmosphere and even about its ionosphere,” says Bruce Banerdt, the mission’s principal investigator, in a NASA video. “But we don’t know very much about what goes on a mile below the surface, much less 2,000 miles below the surface.”

The goal of InSight is to fill that knowledge gap, helping NASA map out the deep structure of Mars.  And along the way, learn about the inferred formation and interiors of exoplanets, too.

Equitorial Mars and the InSight landing site, with noting of other sites. (NASA)

The lander will touch down at Elysium Planitia, a flat expanse due north of the Curiosity landing site.  The destination was selected because it is about as safe as a Mars landing site could be, and InSight did not need to be a more complex site with a compelling surface to explore.

“While I’m looking forward to those first images from the surface, I am even more eager to see the first data sets revealing what is happening deep below our landing pads.” Barerdt said. “The beauty of this mission is happening below the surface. Elysium Planitia is perfect.”

By studying the size, thickness, density and overall structure of the Martian core, mantle and crust, as well as the rate at which heat escapes from the planet’s interior, the InSight mission will provide glimpses into the evolutionary processes of all of the rocky planets in the inner solar system.

That’s because in terms of fundamental processes that shape planetary formation, Mars is an ideal subject.

It is big enough to have undergone the earliest internal heating and differentiation (separation of the crust, mantle and core) processes that shaped the terrestrial planets (Earth, Venus, Mercury, our moon), but small enough to have retained the signature of those processes over the next four billion years.

So Mars may contain the most in-depth and accurate record in the solar system of these processes. And because Mars has been less geologically active than the Earth — it does not have plate tectonics, for example —  it has retains a more complete evolutionary record in its own basic planetary building blocks.  In terms of deep planet geophysics,  it is often described as something of a fossil.

 

An artist rendering of the insides of rocky body like Mars.  The manner in which the different layers form and differentiate is seen as a central factor in whether the planet can become habitable.  (NASA)

 

By using geophysical instruments like those used on Earth, InSight will measure the fingerprints of the processes of terrestrial planet formation, as well as measuring the planet’s “vital signs.” They include the  “pulse” (seismology), “temperature” (heat flow probe), and “reflexes” (precision tracking).

One promising way InSight will peer into the Martian interior is by studying motion underground — what we know as marsquakes.

NASA has not attempted to do this kind of science since the Viking mission. Both Viking landers had their seismometers on top of the spacecraft, where they produced noisy data. InSight’s seismometer will be placed directly on the Martian surface, which will provide much cleaner data.

As described by the agency, “NASA have seen a lot of evidence suggesting Mars has quakes. But unlike quakes on Earth, which are mostly caused by tectonic plates moving around, marsquakes would be caused by other types of tectonic activity, such as volcanism and cracks forming in the planet’s crust.

“In addition, meteor impacts can create seismic waves, which InSight will try to detect.

“Each marsquake would be like a flashbulb that illuminates the structure of the planet’s interior. By studying how seismic waves pass through the different layers of the planet (the crust, mantle and core), scientists can deduce the depths of these layers and what they’re made of. In this way, seismology is like taking an X-ray of the interior of Mars.”

 

The InSight seismometer, developed by European partners and JPL, consists of a total of six seismic sensors that record the vibrations of the Martian soil in three directions in space and at two different frequency ranges. ges allows them to be mathematically combined into a single extremely broadband seismometer.  In order to protect the seismometer against wind and strong temperature fluctuations, a protective dome (Wind and Thermal Shield, WTS) will be placed over it. (German Aerospace Center)

 

Scientists think it’s likely they’ll see between a dozen and a hundred marsquakes over the course of two Earth years. The quakes are likely to be no bigger than a 6.0 on the Richter scale, which would be plenty of energy for revealing secrets about the planet’s interior.

Another area of scientific interest involves whether or not the core of Mars is liquid. InSight’s Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, RISE, will help answer that question by tracking the location of the lander to determine just how much Mars’ North Pole wobbles as it orbits the sun.

These observations will provide information on the size of Mars’ iron-rich core and will help determine whether the core is liquid.  It will also help determine which other elements, besides iron, may be present.

The InSight science effort includes a self-hammering heat probe that will burrow down to 16 feet into the Martian soil and will for the first time measure the heat flow from the planet’s interior. Combining the rate of heat flow with other InSight data will reveal how energy within the planet drives changes on the surface.

This is especially important in trying to understand the presence and size of some of the solar system’s largest shield volcanoes in the solar system, a region known as Tharsis Mons.  Heat escaping from deep within the planet drives the formation of these types of features, as well as many others on rocky planets.

 

The Tharsis region of Mars has some of the largest volcanoes in the solar system. They include Olympus Mons, which is 375 miles in diameter and as much as 16 miles high. (U.S. Geological Survey)

InSight is not an astrobiology mission — no searching for life beyond Earth.

But it definitely is part of the process by which scientists will learn what planet formation and the dynamics of their interiors says about whether a planet can be home to life.

 

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The Kepler Space Telescope Mission Is Ending But Its Legacy Will Keep Growing.

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An illustration of the Kepler Space Telescope, which is on its very last legs.  As of October 2018, the planet-hunting spacecraft has been in space for nearly a decade. (NASA via AP)

 

The Kepler Space Telescope is dead.  Long live the Kepler.

NASA officials announced on Tuesday that the pioneering exoplanet survey telescope — which had led to the identification of almost 2,700 exoplanets — had finally reached its end, having essentially run out of fuel.  This is after nine years of observing, after a malfunctioning steering system required a complex fix and change of plants, and after the hydrazine fuel levels reached empty.

While the sheer number of exoplanets discovered is impressive the telescope did substantially more:  it proved once and for all that the galaxy is filled with planets orbiting distant stars.  Before Kepler this was speculated, but now it is firmly established thanks to the Kepler run.

It also provided data for thousands of papers exploring the logic and characteristics of exoplanets.  And that’s why the Kepler will indeed live long in the world of space science.

“As NASA’s first planet-hunting mission, Kepler has wildly exceeded all our expectations and paved the way for our exploration and search for life in the solar system and beyond,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“Not only did it show us how many planets could be out there, it sparked an entirely new and robust field of research that has taken the science community by storm. Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe, and illuminated the tantalizing mysteries and possibilities among the stars.”

 

 


The Kepler Space Telescope was focused on hunting for planets in this patch of the Milky Way. After two of its four spinning reaction wheels failed, it could no longer remain steady enough to stare that those distant stars but was reconfigured to look elsewhere and at a different angle for the K2 mission. (Carter Roberts/NASA)

 

Kepler was initially the unlikely brainchild of William Borucki, its founding principal investigator who is now retired from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.

When he began thinking of designing and proposing a space telescope that could potentially tell us how common distant exoplanets were — and especially smaller terrestrial exoplanets like Earth – the science of extra solar planets was at a very different stage.

William Borucki, originally the main champion for the Kepler idea and later the principal investigator of the mission. His work at NASA went back to the Apollo days. (NASA)

“When we started conceiving this mission 35 years ago we didn’t know of a single planet outside our solar system,” Borucki said.  “Now that we know planets are everywhere, Kepler has set us on a new course that’s full of promise for future generations to explore our galaxy.”

The space telescope was launched in 2009.  While Kepler did not find the first exoplanets — that required the work of astronomers using a different technique of observing based on the “wobble” of stars caused by orbiting planets — it did change the exoplanet paradigm substantially.

Not only did it prove that exoplanets are common, it found that planets outnumber stars in our galaxy (which has hundreds of billions of those stars.)

In addition it found that small, terrestrial-size planets are common as well, with some 20 to 50 percent of stars likely to have planets of that size and type.  And what menagerie of planets it found out there.

Astrophysicist Natalie Batalha was the Kepler project and mission scientist for a decade. She left NASA recently for the University of California at Santa Cruz “to carry on the Kepler legacy” by creating an interdisciplinary center for the study of planetary habitability.

Among the greatest surprises:  The Kepler mission provided data showing that the most common sized planets in the galaxy fall somewhere between Earth and Neptune, a type of planet that isn’t present in our solar system.

It found solar systems of all sizes as well, including some with many planets (as many as eight) orbiting close to their host star.

The discovery of these compact systems, generally orbiting a red dwarf star, raised questions about how solar systems form: Are these planets “born” close to their parent star, or do they form farther out and migrate in?

So far, more than 2,500 peer-reviewed papers have been published using Kepler data, with substantial amounts of that data still unmined.

Natalie Batalha was the project and mission scientist for Kepler for much of its run, and I asked her about its legacy.

“When I think of Kepler’s influence across all of astrophysics, I’m amazed at what such a simple experiment accomplished,” she wrote in an email. “You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more boring mandate — to unblinkingly measure the brightnesses of the same stars for years on end. No beautiful images. No fancy spectra. No landscapes. Just dots in a scatter plot.

“And yet time-domain astronomy exploded. We’d never looked at the Universe quite this way before. We saw lava worlds and water worlds and disintegrating planets and heart-beat stars and supernova shock waves and the spinning cores of stars and planets the age of the galaxy itself… all from those dots.”

 

The Kepler-62 system is put one of many solar systems detected by the space telescope. The planets within the green discs are in the habitable zones of the stars — where water could be liquid at times. (NASA)

 

While Kepler provided remarkable answers to questions about the overall planetary makeup of our galaxy, it did not identify smaller planets that will be directly imaged, the evolving gold standard for characterizing exoplanets.  The 150,000 stars that the telescope was observing were very distant, in the range of a few hundred to a few thousand light-years away. One light year is about 6 trillion (6,000,000,000,000) miles.

Nonetheless, Kepler was able to detect  the presence of a handful of Earth-sized planets in the habitable zones of their stars.  The Kepler-62 system held one of them, and it is 1200 light-years away.  In contrast, the four Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone of the much-studied Trappist-1 system are 39 light-years away.

Kepler made its observations using the the transit technique, which looks for tiny dips in the amount of light coming from a star caused by the presence of a planet passing in front of the star.  While the inference that exoplanets are ubiquitous came from Kepler results, the telescope was actually observing but a small bit of the sky.  It has been estimated that it would require around 400 space telescopes like Kepler to cover the whole sky.

What’s more, only planets whose orbits are seen edge-on from Earth can be detected via the transit method, and that rules out a vast number of exoplanets.

The bulk of the stars that were selected for close Kepler observation were more or less sun-like, but a sampling of other stars occurred as well. One of the most important factors was brightness. Detecting minuscule changes in brightness caused by transiting planet is impossible if the star is too dim.

 

The artist’s concept depicts Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-size planet to orbit a distant star in the habitable zone. (NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

 

Four years into the mission, after the primary mission objectives had been met, mechanical failures temporarily halted observations. The mission team was able to devise a fix, switching the spacecraft’s field of view roughly every three months. This enabled an extended mission for the spacecraft, dubbed K2, which lasted as long as the first mission and bumped Kepler’s count of surveyed stars up to more than 500,000.

But it was inevitable that the mission would come to an end sooner rather than later because of that dwindling fuel supply, needed to keep the telescope properly pointed.

Kepler cannot be refueled because NASA decided to place the telescope in an orbit around the sun that is well beyond the influence of the Earth and moon — to simplify operations and ensure an extremely quiet, stable environment for scientific observations.  So Kepler was beyond the reach of any refueling vessel.  The Kepler team compensated by flying considerably more fuel than was necessary to meet the mission objectives.

The video below explains what will happen to the Kepler capsule once it is decommissioned.  But a NASA release explains that the final commands “will be to turn off the spacecraft transmitters and disable the onboard fault protection that would turn them back on. While the spacecraft is a long way from Earth and requires enormous antennas to communicate with it, it is good practice to turn off transmitters when they are no longer being used, and not pollute the airwaves with potential interference.”

 

 

And so Kepler will actually continue orbiting for many decades, just as its legacy will continue long after operations cease.

Kepler’s follow-on exoplanet surveyor — the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite or TESS — was launched this year and has begun sending back data.  Its primary mission objective is to survey the brightest stars near the Earth for transiting exoplanets. The TESS satellite uses an array of wide-field cameras to survey some 85% of the sky, and is planned to last for two years.

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Prepare For Lift-off! BepiColombo Launches For Mercury

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Artist illustration of the BepiColombo orbiters, MIO and Bepi, around Mercury (JAXA).

This Friday (October 19) at 10:45pm local time in French Guinea, a spacecraft is set to launch for Mercury. This is the BepiColombo mission which will begin its seven year journey to our solar system’s innermost planet. Surprisingly, the science goals for investigating this boiling hot world are intimately linked to habitability.

Mercury orbits the sun at an average distance of 35 million miles (57 million km); just 39% of the distance between the sun and the Earth. The planet therefore completes a year in just 88 Earth days.

The close proximity to the sun puts Mercury in a 3:2 tidal lock, meaning the planet rotates three times for every two orbits around the sun. (By contrast, our moon is in a 1:1 tidal lock and rotates once for every orbit around the Earth.) With only a tenuous atmosphere to redistribute heat, this orbit results in extreme temperatures between about -290°F and 800°F (-180°C to 427°C). The overall picture is one of the most inhospitable of worlds, so what do we hope to learn from this barren and baked land?

BepiColombo is a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). It consists of two orbiters, one built by each space agency. The mission is named after Giuseppe “Bepi” Colombo, an Italian mathematician who calculated the orbit of the first mission to Mercury —NASA’s Mariner 10— such that it could make repeated fly-bys of the planet.

When Mariner 10 reached Mercury in the mid-1970s, it made an astonishing discovery:  the planet had a weak magnetic field. The Earth also has a magnetic field that is driven by movement in its molten iron core.

However, with a mass of only 5.5% that of the Earth, the interior of Mercury was expected to have cooled sufficiently since its formation for the core to have solidified and jammed the breaks on magnetic field generation. This is thought to have happened to Mars, which is significantly larger than Mercury with a mass around 10% that of the Earth. So how does Mercury hold onto its field?

The discoveries only got stranger with the arrival of NASA’s MESSENGER mission in 2011. MESSENGER discovery that Mercury’s magnetic field was off-set, with the center shifted northwards by a distance equal to 20% of the planet’s radius.

The mysteries also do not end with Mercury’s wonky magnetic field. The planet’s density is very high, suggesting a much larger iron core relative to its volume compared to the Earth.

The thin atmosphere is mysteriously rich in sodium and there also appears to be more volatiles such as water ice than is expected for a planet that dances so close to the sun. All this points to a formation and evolution that we do not yet understand.

Artist impression of the JAXA orbiter, MIO, around Mercury (credit: JAXA).

The two BepiColombo orbiters will sweep around the planet to pick at these questions. The pair will get a global view of Mercury, in contrast to MESSENGER whose orbit did not allow a good view over the southern hemisphere.

“Getting data from the southern hemisphere to complement the details from MESSENGER is a logical next step to investigating the nature of Mercury’s magnetic field,” commented Masaki Fujimoto, Deputy Director General at JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences (ISAS).

The European orbiter is the “Mercury Planetary Orbiter” (MPO), with “Bepi” as a nickname. Bepi will take a relatively close orbit around Mercury, with an altitude between 300 – 930 miles (480 – 1500 km). The main focus of the probe is the planet’s surface topology and composition, as well as a precise measurement of the gravitational field that reveals information about Mercury’s internal structure.

The Japanese orbiter is the “Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter” (MMO) and was given the nickname “MIO” through a public contest held earlier this year and translates to “waterway” in Japanese.

Masaki Fujimoto, Deputy Director of ISAS, JAXA.

“Water related names received many votes,” explained Go Murakami, BepiColombo MIO project scientist. “Because in the Japanese language, Mercury is written ‘水星’ (suisei) meaning ‘water planet’.”

The focus for MIO is Mercury’s magnetic field and the interaction with the solar wind; a stream of high energy particles that comes from the sun. This requires exploration of the region around Mercury and MIO will take a correspondingly wider orbit than Bepi, with an altitude between 250 – 7500 miles (400 – 12,000km).

While Mercury itself is interesting, understanding the planet’s history has wide ranging implications for the search for habitable worlds around other stars.

The easiest exoplanets to spot are those on close orbits around dim red dwarf (also known as M-dwarf) stars. As they are far less luminous than our sun, even planets on close orbits around red dwarfs may receive a similar level of radiation to the Earth, placing them in the so-called “habitable zone.” An important example of this are the TRAPPIST-1 worlds, whose three habitable-zone planets have orbits lasting 6, 9 and 12 Earth days.

Go Murakami, BepiColombo MIO project scientist

However, the close proximity to the star comes with risks. Red dwarfs are particularly rambunctious, emitting flares that can strip the atmosphere of an orbiting planet. Mars is a classic example of this process.

Even orbiting a relatively quiet star at a distance further from the Earth, the thin atmosphere of Mars is being pulled away by the solar wind. Unless the TRAPPIST-1 worlds and those like them can protect their gases with a magnetic field, their surfaces may always be sterile.

While we know the Earth avoids this fate with its own magnetic field, it is not clear whether it would fare as well closer to the sun or with a weaker magnetic field. Mercury with its weak field and in the full blast of the solar wind offers an extreme comparison point.

A second insight Mercury could provide is that of the origin of rock. Planetary formation theories suggest there must have been mixing of dust grains in the planet-forming disc that circled the young sun. This would have shuffled up the elements that were condensing into solids at different temperatures within the disc. The exact nature and result of the shuffling remains a big question, yet it controls the composition of inner rocky planets that includes the Earth.

“The subject of planetary origins is very intriguing to me,” remarks Fujimoto. “JAXA’s asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa2, is asking the question of where the water on Earth came from. BepiColombo will ask the complimentary question of how our planet’s rocky body was made.”

Together, the two orbiters cover a wide range of science of addressing these questions. They can also work as a pair by taking simultaneous measurements from different locations. This is particularly useful for analyzing time-varying events and also allows the planetary magnetic field to be separated out from the magnetic field carried by the solar wind.

The launch date for BepiColombo has been pushed back several times over the last few years. However, this has allowed for engineering improvements, and discoveries such as the TRAPPIST-1 planets have only added to the excitement of the mission.

“We are not unhappy about the launch delays,” said Fujimoto. “What has happened in planetary science during that period has made the expectation for BepiColombo even higher!”

The journey to the innermost planet is not a quick one. Due to arrive in 2025, the long duration is actually not due to distance but the need to brake. The pull from the sun’s gravity at such close proximity makes it hard for BepiColombo to slow sufficiently for the two probes to enter Mercury’s orbit.

The spacecraft therefore does nine planetary fly-bys; one by the Earth in April next year, then two for Venus and six for Mercury. The gravity of the planet can be used to slow down the spacecraft and allow Bepi and MIO to begin their main mission.

To my complete delight, ESA have started an animated series of shorts for the mission, similar to the cartoons for the Rosetta mission to comet 67P in 2014. These informative little videos depict the adventures of Bepi, MIO and the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) that provides the propulsion to reach Mercury.

In addition to the videos, all three probes (and the mission itself) have twitter accounts @BepiColombo (main mission account), @esa_bepi (character account for Bepi which tweets in English), @jaxa_mmo (character account for MIO that tweets in English and Japanese) and @esa_mtm that tweets in… I’ll let you find that out!

The live launch feed from ESA is due to begin at 21:38 EDT on Friday, October 19. Good luck, BepiColombo!

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Human Space Travel, Health and Risk

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Astronauts in a mock-up of the Orion space capsule, which NASA plans to use in some form as a deep-space vehicle. (NASA)

 

We all know that human space travel is risky. Always has been and always will be.

Imagine, for a second, that you’re an astronaut about to be sent on a journey to Mars and back, and you’re in a capsule on top of NASA’s second-generation Space Launch System designed for that task.

You will be 384 feet in the air waiting to launch (as tall as a 38-floor building,) the rocket system will weigh 6.5 million pounds (equivalent to almost nine fully-loaded 747 jets) and you will take off with 9.2 million pounds of thrust (34 times the total thrust of one of those 747s.)

Given the thrill and power of such a launch and later descent, everything else seemed to pale in terms of both drama and riskiness.  But as NASA has been learning more and more, the risks continue in space and perhaps even increase.

We’re not talking here about a leak or a malfunction computer system; we’re talking about absolutely inevitable risks from cosmic rays and radiation generally — as well as from micro-gravity — during a long journey in space.

Since no human has been in deep space for more than a short time, the task of understanding those health risks is very tricky and utterly dependent on testing creatures other than humans.

The most recent results are sobering.  A NASA-sponsored team at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington looked specifically at what could happen to a human digestive system on a long Martian venture, and the results were not reassuring.

Their results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  (PNAS), suggests that deep space bombardment by galactic cosmic radiation and solar particles could significantly damage gastrointestinal tissue leading to long-term functional changes and problems. The study also raises concern about high risk of tumor development in the stomach and colon.

 

Galactic cosmic rays are a variable shower of charged particles coming from supernova explosions and other events extremely far from our solar system. The sun is the other main source of energetic particles this investigation detects and characterizes. The sun spews electrons, protons and heavier ions in “solar particle events” fed by solar flares and ejections of matter from the sun’s corona. Magnetic fields around Earth protect the planet from most of these heavy particles, but astronauts do not have that protect beyond low-Earth orbit. (NASA)

 

Kamal Datta, an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry is project leader of the NASA Specialized Center of Research (NSCOR) at Georgetown and has been studying the effects of space radiation on humans for more than a decade.

He said that heavy ions (electrically charged atoms and molecules) of elements such as iron and silicon are damaging to humans because of their greater mass compared to mass-less photons such as x-rays and gamma rays prevalent on Earth.  These heavy ions, as well as low mass protons, are ubiquitous in deep space.

Kamal Datta of Georgetown University Medical Center works with NASA to understand the potential risks from galactic cosmic radiation to astronauts who may one day travel in deep space.

“With the current shielding technology, it is difficult to protect astronauts from the adverse effects of heavy ion radiation. Although there may be a way to use medicines to counter these effects, no such agent has been developed yet,” says Datta, also a member of Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“While short trips, like the times astronauts traveled to the moon, may not expose them to this level of damage, the real concern is lasting injury from a long trip, such as a Mars or other deep space missions which would be much longer” he said in a release.

Datta’s team has also published on the potentially harmful effects of galactic cosmic radiation on the brain and other teams are looking at potential deep-space travel dangers the human cardio-vascular system.  Researchers are also concerned about known weakening of bone and muscle tissue, harming vision, as well as speeded-up aging during long stays in space.

With current technology, it would take about three years to travel from Earth to Mars, orbit the planet until it is in the right place for a sling-shot boost home, and then to travel back.

A radiation detection instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL),  which carried the rover Curiosity to Mars in 2011-2012, measured an estimated overall human radiation exposure for a Mars trip that would would be two-thirds of the agency’s allowed lifetime limits.  That was based on the high-energy radiation hitting the capsule, but NASA later detected radiation bursts from solar flares on Mars far higher than anything detected during the MSL transit.

All of this seems, and is, quite daunting when thinking about human travel to Mars and other deep space destinations.  And Datta is clearly sensitive about how the new results are conveyed to the public.

“I am in no way saying that people cannot travel to Mars,” he told me. “What we are doing is trying to understand the health risks so proper mitigation can be devised, not to say this kind of travel is impossible.”

“We don’t have medicines now to protect astronauts from heavy particle radiation, and we don’t have the technology now to shield them while they’re in space.  But many people are working on these problems.”

 

The Orion spacecraft in flight, as drawn by an artist. The capsule has an attached habitat module. (NASA)

 

On the medical research side, scientists have to rely on data gained from exposing mice to radiation and extrapolating those results to humans.  It would, of course, be unethical to do the testing on people.

While this kind of animal testing is accepted as generally accurate, it certainly could hide either increased protections or increased risks in humans.

Datta said that another testing issue that has been present so far is that the mice have had to be irradiated in one large dose rather than in much smaller doses over time.  It is unclear how that effects the potential damage to human organs and the breaking of DNA bonds (which can result in the growth of cancers.)  But Datta said that new instruments at NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York, will allow for a more gradual, lower-dose experiment.

While Datta’s work has been focused on the health risks of deep space travel, galactic cosmic radiation and solar heavy particles also bombard the moon — which has no magnetic field and only a very thin atmosphere to protect it.  Apollo astronauts could safely stay on the moon for several days in their suits and their lander, but months or years of living in a colony there would pose far greater risks.

NASA has actually funded projects to shield small areas on the moon from radiation, but the issue remains very much unresolved.

Shielding also plays a major role in thinking about how to protect astronauts traveling into deep space.  The current aluminum skin of space capsules allows much of the harmful radiation to pass through, and so something is needed to block it.

 

The goal of building an inhabited colony on the moon has many avid supporters in government and the private sector. The health risks for astronauts are similar to those in deep space. (NASA/Pat Rawlings)

 

Experts have concluded that perhaps the best barrier to radiation would be a layer of water, but it is too heavy to carry in the needed amounts.  Other possibilities include organic polymers (large macromolecules with repeating subunits) such as polyethelyne.

It seems clear that issues such as these — the effects of more hazardous space radiation on astronauts in deep space and on the moon, and how to minimize those dangers — will be coming to the front burner in the years ahead.  And assuming that progress can be made, it’s a thrilling time.

What this means for space science, however, is less clear.

On one hand I recall hearing former astronaut extraordinaire and then head of the NASA Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld talk about how an astronaut on Mars could gather data and understandings in one week that the Curiosity rover would need a full year to match.

On the other, human space exploration is much more expensive than anything without people — yes, even including the long-delayed and ever-more-costly James Webb Space Telescope — and NASA budgets are limited.

So the question arises whether human exploration will, when it gets into high gear, swallow up the resources needed for the successors to the Hubble, Curiosity, Cassini and the other missions that have helped create what I consider to be a golden age of space science.  Risks come in many forms.

 

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Curiosity Rover Looks Around Full Circle And Sees A Once Habitable World Through The Dust

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An annotated 360-degree view from the Curiosity mast camera.  Dust remaining from an enormous recent storm can be seen on the platform and in the sky.  And holes in the tires speak of the rough terrain Curiosity has traveled, but now avoids whenever possible. Make the screen bigger for best results and enjoy the show. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

 

When it comes to the search for life beyond Earth, I think it would be hard to point to a body more captivating, and certainly more studied, than Mars.

The Curiosity rover team concluded fairly early in its six-year mission on the planet that “habitable” conditions existed on early Mars.  That finding came from the indisputable presence of substantial amounts of liquid water three-billion-plus years ago, of oxidizing and reducing molecules that could provide energy for simple life, of organic compounds and of an atmosphere that was thick enough to block some of the most harmful incoming cosmic rays.

Last year, Curiosity scientists estimated that the window for a habitable Mars was some 700 million years, from 3.8 to 3.1 billion years ago.  Is it a coincidence that the earliest confirmed life on Earth appeared about 3.8 billion years ago?

Today’s frigid Mars, which has an atmosphere much thinner than in the planet’s early days, hardly looks inviting, although some scientists do see a possibility that primitive life survives below the surface.

But because it doesn’t look inviting now doesn’t mean the signs of a very different planet aren’t visible and detectable through instruments.  The Curiosity mission has proven this once and for all.

The just released and compelling 360-degree look (above) at the area including Vera Rubin Ridge brings the message home.

Those fractured, flat rocks are mudstone, formed when Gale Crater was home to Gale Lake.  Mudstone and other sedimentary formations have been visible (and sometimes drilled) along a fair amount of the 12.26-mile path that Curiosity has traveled since touchdown.

 

An image of Vera Rubin Ridge in traditional Curiosity color, and the same view below with filters designed to detect hematite, or iron oxide. That compound can only be formed in the presence of water. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

 

The area the rover is now exploring contains enough hematite — iron oxide — that its signal was detectable from far above the planet, making this area a prized destination since well before the Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity were launched.

Like Martian clays and sulfates that have been identified and explored, the hematite is of great interest because of its origins in water.  Without H2O present many eons ago, there would be no hematite, no clay, no sulfates.  But as Mars researchers have found, there is a lot of all three.

I like to return to Mars and especially Curiosity because it provides something unique in the cosmos:  an environment where scientists today have ground-truthed the hypothesis that early Mars was once habitable, and found unambiguous results that it was.

That doesn’t mean that the planet necessarily ever gave rise to, or supported, living organisms.  But it’s a lot more than can be said for other targets for life beyond Earth.

NASA’s Europa Clipper may determine some day that beneath the ice crust of that moon of Jupiter is an ocean that is, or was, habitable.  But that determination is still years away.  Same with Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which some see as habitable beneath its ice, but no mission is currently approved to determine that.

And when it comes to exoplanets and possible life on them, it is both a logical and alluring conclusion that some support living organisms — there are, after all, billions and billions of exoplanets, and the cosmos is filled with the elements and compounds we find on Earth.

But we remain quite far away from consensus on what an exoplanet biosignature might be, and much further away from being able to confidently detect the probable biosignature elements and compounds on distant exoplanets.

And so for now we have Mars as our most plausible target for life beyond Earth.

 

Vera Rubin Ridge, with its high concentration of both red and green hematite. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

 

It wasn’t that long ago that the NASA exploration mantra for Mars was “follow the water,”  under the assumption that life needed water to survive.

But Curiosity and satellites orbiting Mars have found abundant proof that water did play a major role in the planet’s early times.  Not only has Curiosity found that a lake existed on and off for hundreds of millions of years at Gale Crater, but researchers recently announced the presence of a large reservoir of liquid water beneath the southern polar region.

What’s more, evidence of briny surface streams on steep Martian cliffs in their warm season has grown stronger, though it remains a much-debated finding.

But with the water story well established, researchers are focused more on organics, minerals and what can be found beneath the radiation-baked surface.

Curiosity has been working for months around Vera Rubin Ridge, though for much of that time with a big handicap — the rover’s long-armed drill wasn’t working.  Important internal mechanisms stopped performing in late 2016, and it wasn’t until late spring of 2018 that a workaround was ready.

After one successful drilling, the next two failed.  But there was no drill problem with those two; the rock on the ridge was just too hard to penetrate.  It makes sense that the rock would be very hard because it has withstood millions of years of powerful winds blowing across Gale Crater, while other nearby rock and sediments were carried away.

The best way to discover why these rocks are so hard is to drill them into a powder for the rover’s two internal laboratories. Analyzing them might reveal what’s acting as “cement” in the ridge, enabling it to stand despite wind erosion.

Most likely, said Curiosity project scientist Ashin Vasavada, groundwater flowing through the ridge in the ancient past had a role in strengthening it, perhaps acting as plumbing to distribute this wind-proofing “cement.” In this case, it would be some variation of hematite, which in crystal form can be pretty hard on its own.

On its third attempt — and after a prolonged search for a “soft” spot in the ridge — the Curiosity drill did succeed in digging a hole and bringing back some precious powdered contents for study in the two onboard labs.

After the exploration of Vera Rubin Ridge and its hematite will come explorations of large deposits of sulfates and phyllosilicates (clays) — both formed in water as well — further up Mt. Sharp.

 

Curiosity’s pathway over the past six years, from near the Bradbury Landing site to the successful drilling at Vera Rubin Ridge. The route has gone through fossil lake beds, dune fields, the underlying rock formation of Mt. Sharp and now up to the hematite concentrations. (NASA/JPL=Calgtech)

 

I find the landscape of Mars that Curiosity shows us to be captivating, but also sobering when it comes to the search for life beyond Earth.

Here is the planet closest to Earth (during some orbits, at least), one that has been determined to be habitable 3 to 4 billion years ago,  one that can be studied with rovers on the ground and orbiting satellites — and still we can’t determine if it ever actually supported life, and probably won’t be able to for decades to come.

The big confounding factor on Mars really is time.  Life could have come and gone billions of years ago, and intense surface radiation could have erased that history and made it appear as if life was never there.  (This is one reason why Mars scientists want to dig deeper below the surface, where the effects of radiation would be much reduced.)

Time may be a powerful obstacle when it comes finding signs of life on exoplanets as well.  If life exists elsewhere in the cosmos, it surely comes and goes, too.  The odds of us catching it when it’s present may be low, despite all those billions and billions of planets. (Given the way that exoplanet biosignatures work, the life needs to be present at the time of observation.)

Or maybe the time for life in the cosmos has really just begun.

Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist Avi Loeb argued several years ago that life on Earth may be a premature flowering, compared with what may well happen later and elsewhere. (Column on his intriguing ideas is here.)

A majority of stars in the cosmos are red dwarfs, or M stars.  They take eons to stabilize and then generally continue in a steady state for much longer than a G star like our sun.  So, he argued,  life in the cosmos around red dwarfs may not become widespread for some time, and then could last for a very long time if and when it did arise.

But enough about time — other than to perhaps take a little more time to enjoy the 360-degree view of Mars and Curiosity that brings thoughts like these to mind.

 

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