There’s many ways to look for life on other planets. Most of our efforts currently focus on first finding environments that could sustain life as we know it which is why the search (and subsequent discovery) of water on other celestial bodies is always a cause for celebration. Once we’ve got a target though the search needs to become more nuanced as we have to seek out the clues that life leaves behind or the blocks that build it. For life as we know it one of the first things we can look for is the presence of organic molecules, the essential parts that make up all of life as we know it. One of these such molecules is methane, reknown for being a component in flatulence, something which Curiosity recently detected on Mars.
Methane, and other organic compounds, don’t necessarily require life in order to form however their presence does indicate that there was an environment favourable to life at one point in time. For Mars this was some time ago, on the order of billions of years, and so it’s highly unlikely that any remaining methane is due to microbial activity. However there has to be some local source of methane near Curiosity as it detected a ten fold spike in the amount of methane in Mars’ atmosphere, something which it has never seen before. Additionally Curiosity detected other organic molecules in a rock it drilled into recently, indicating that there was a time when organics must have been prevalent across the entire surface of Mars.
The discovery was made sometime ago however the researchers needed to rule out the possibility that the reading was caused by organics that were trapped in Curiosity’s sensors from Earth. Things like this happen more often than you think as whilst we take every precaution to ensure that there isn’t any contaminations on craft like this it’s inevitable that the sensors, all of which are highly complex machines, end up having stray molecules trapped within them. Because of that however we’ve gotten pretty good at identifying when things came along for the ride and this particular methane spike didn’t originate from Earth.
The organics in the rock are most intriguing however as they tell a story of Mars’ atmosphere that stretches back to the point where it still held liquid water on its surface. The ratio of isotopes in the water (which I talked about yesterday in regards to the discoveries Rosetta has made) indicates that the mineral formed some time after Mars lost much of its water, if we assume that the water on Mars and Earth came from the same place. However the ratio is also radically different to the water in Mars’ atmosphere today indicating that it formed before Mars lost the rest of its surface water. It will be interesting to see how this sample compares to other places around Mars as it will paint a detailed picture of the planet’s surface over time.
It seems like it will be only a matter of time before we find a large source of water on Mars, buried deep beneath the surface somewhere. From there we’ll have an exciting period of analysis to determine if microbial life still thrives on what appears to be a dead planet. Unfortunately that’s not likely to happen any time soon, at least not until we get people there anyway, but with NASA recommitting themselves to such an endeavour it might come sooner than many first thought. Honestly I can’t wait for that to occur as it will shed so much light on how life evolves and, possibly, what it can become.
It’s hard to believe that Curiosity, the successor to the incredibly successful Spirit and Opportunity Mars Exploration Rovers, has been on the martian surface for a total of 2 years now. Not only did it prove many of the complicated engineering processes behind getting such a large craft onto Mars’ surface it’s also greatly improved our understanding of our celestial neighbour. Like its predecessors Curiosity has already outlived its original mission parameters, although not by the same margin, and barring any catastrophic failures it’s highly likely that it will continue to be productive long into the future. However it did recently come dangerously close to falling victim to one of Mars’ most insidious features: the sand traps.
Curiosity’s current mission is to get to Mount Sharp, a 5KM tall peak which NASA scientists hope will have varying layers of rock they’ll be able to study as they climb up it. This would give a better insight into the evolution of Mars’ environment over the years, showing us how it transitioned from a once wet planet into the barren desert that it is today. However between Curiosity and the base of Mount Sharp there’s a trench of wavy sand that’s been dubbed the “Hidden Valley” and up until recently NASA scientists were just going to drive across it. However upon attempting to do this Curiosity has found that the sand is far more slippery than it first anticipated and thus it has been turned back whilst NASA figures out what approach they’ll take.
This is a very similar situation to the one that was eventually the downfall of Spirit. A lot of the surface of Mars looks visually similar however often the makeup of the underlying surface varies drastically. In both Curiosity’s and Spirit’s cases the soil lacked cohesion making it extremely difficult for the rovers to get traction. For Spirit this meant that it was no longer able to get its solar panels into the required angle for the martian winter, meaning it couldn’t generate enough electricity to keep its circuits functioning. If the same fate had befallen Curiosity however it wouldn’t matter as much (well apart from the obvious) as it’s internal power supply doesn’t rely on solar energy.
In terms of the mission profile it’s likely that this will probably just be a delay more than anything else as whilst there aren’t many ways out of the valley that Curiosity is currently in there are other potential paths it can take to get to Mount Sharp. In actual fact the delay might not be all bad news for Curiosity either as the return journey from the slippery slopes of Hidden Valley actually revealed a potential rock for further investigation, dubbed the Bonanza King. We’ll have to wait and see if anything interesting can be derived from that, however.
I guess things like this just go to show that no matter how well you prepare, nor how good the equipment is that you bring with you, it’s still entirely possible for old problems to come back and bite you. Thankfully this time around we were prepared for such things and we haven’t ended up with another stationary science platform. Hopefully this won’t delay Curiosity’s mission for too long as it’s proven to be incredibly valuable thus far and the Mount Sharp mission could really give us clarity over how Mars became the desolate place that it is today.
I’ll just put this here, a sunset on Mars as seen by the Curiosity rover:
I had one of those moments watching this video where I just considered the chain of events that led up to me being able to see this. There’s a robot on another planet, several million kilometers away, that’s beaming pictures back to Earth. Those pictures were then made available to the public via a vast, interconnected network that spans the entire globe. One person on that network decided to collate them into a video and make that available via said network. I then, using commodity hardware that anyone can purchase, was able to view that video. The chain of events leading up to that point seem so improbable when you look at as a completed system but they all exist and are all products of human innovation.
Isn’t that just mind blowingly awesome?
New scientific discoveries get me excited, they really do. After discovering the awesome Science Daily I found myself losing hours in research papers that show cased everything from new discoveries with great potential to good old fashioned applications of science that were already producing benefits for everyone involved. Of course it gets a whole lot more exciting when that science is being conducted on an entirely different planet so you can imagine my excitement when I heard that Curiosity had discovered something amazing, something that had could have been “history in the making”.
It’s one thing for space and science nuts like me to get excited about these kinds of things, we usually know what to expect and the confirmation of it is what gets us all giddy, but its another thing entirely for the rest of the world to start getting excited about it. You see what started out as a couple posts on my feed reader with a couple scientists on the Curiosity team eventually mutated into dozens and when I saw that Australian TV programs were covering it I knew that it had gotten out of hand. It’s not that this was wholly unexpected, the public interest in Curosity has been the highest I’ve seen since the Spirit and Opportunity first touched down on Mars, but I knew that this fever pitch over the potential ground breaking news would inevitably lead to public disappointment no matter how significant the find was.
To put it in perspective Curiosity has a very distinct set of capabilities, most of them targeted towards imaging and the study of the composition of the things it comes across. Much of the speculation I read about Curiosity’s find centred around the idea that it had detected life in some form or another which would truly be earth shattering news. However Curiosity just isn’t set up to do that in the way most people think it is as its microscopes are simply not capable of imaging microbes directly. The only way it could detect signs of life would be through the on-board laboratory using its mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph and laser spectrometer and even then it would only detect organic compounds (like methane) which is a good, but not certain, indication of life.
Unfortunately whilst the scientists had done their best to try and down play what the result might actually be the damage has been done as the public’s expectations are wildly out of alignment with what it could actually be. It’s annoying as it doesn’t help the image of the greater scientific community when things like this happen and it’s unfortunately become a semi-regular occurrence. I can really blame the scientists for this one, they really are working on a historic mission that will further our understanding of Mars and many other things, but care has to be taken to avoid these kinds of situations in the future. Hopefully the media will also refrain from sensationalising science to the point where the story no longer matches the reality, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.
For what its worth though I’m still looking forward to whatever it is they found out we’re still only in the beginning of Curiosity’s mission, meaning there’s plenty more science to be done and many more discoveries to be had. Whilst they might not be the amazing things that the media might have speculated them to be they will still be exciting for the scientific community and will undoubtedly further our understanding in many different areas. Hopefully this will be the only PR debacle of Curiosity’s mission as I’d hate to have to write a follow up post.
I usually reserve these kinds of things for a quick tweet or Facebook post but I figured it was time I actually explained the creation of these particular videos. Shown below for your viewing pleasure is yet another Curiosity descent video that makes for some incredible watching:
For starters the first thing I’ll let you in on is that all the sound you hear in this video is 100% fake as Curiosity does not have a microphone on board. That may seem strange, I mean what camera that can take video doesn’t have one, but they’ve launched craft to Mars with microphones before (the Mars Polar Lander was one, although it was tragically lost, with the Phoenix Lander being one that actually made it) and the recordings made back then weren’t particularly interesting. Most of the noise that they recorded was akin to static and really didn’t have much use scientifically so future Mars craft like Curiosity don’t carry them so they can use the payload space for more experiments. Additionally the actual sound would probably be a lot more harsh (ever heard a microphone in high wind?) as at this stage Curiosity was rocketing towards Mars at a pretty decent rate.
The original video, shown here, is based off the images from the MARDI camera that’s on the bottom of the rover specifically for this purpose. Now I’ve heard differing reports as to what the actual frame rate was as the original video says it’s somewhere on the order of 2 FPS (297 images over 150 seconds) but most are quote as saying its 4FPS. The imager itself is capable of doing up to 10FPS but I don’t believe it was for this particular video. How then, you might be wondering, do they manage to get something like 20 FPS like the video does above? Well the original video is probably the best candidate for something called Video Interpolation (or inbetweening as its usually referred to).
In essence the additional frames are generated from the frames either side of it and the algorithms are essentially guessing what’s going to come next. For the MARDI images this works quite well as the amount of change between frames is quite low and thus the interpolation between frames looks quite good. Most of the better ones of these also have a lot of hand work with them as well to smooth out some things (like the heat shield falling motion). If there’s a lot of action between frames you tend to get smudging which you can actually see hints of in the video (look at the landscape shifting about as it gets closer). It works on any kind of video too and a lot of enterprising YouTubers use it in order to get that slow motion effect without having to spend the untold thousands on high speed video cameras.
I find the videos interesting both because of what they are (technical achievements in both their creation and interpolation) and what they represent to us as species. The response to the Curiosity videos has been nothing short of amazing and it makes me so happy to see so many being inspired by it. It’s things like this that spur on the next generation to become the kinds of people capable of making things like this and it never fails to impress me time and time again.
Whilst scientists and engineers aren’t the most superstitious of people emergent, inexplicable patterns can still make them uneasy in much the same way. The Mars Curse is one such pattern that has seen half of the missions that were destined for our red sister fail in some way, either in transport or shortly after arriving at their destination. You can then imagine the tension that the Mars Science Laboratory (commonly known as the Curiosity rover) team experienced as they started to make their final approach to Mars, especially considering how complicated their landing had to be. Yesterday saw the rover touch down safely on the Martian surface, much to the joy of everyone involved and those of us who were watching on.
For the first couple of days Curiosity is going to be spending most of its time validating systems and ensuring that communications back to Earth are stable. For those of you who were watching the live feed those first few images we saw came via the Mars Odyssey orbiter, the very same orbiter that’s responsible for relaying all the data from them previous generation of Mars rovers. Curiosity has the capability to deliver a lot more data than those two little rovers combined and whilst Odyssey could relay that back it’s much more advantageous to use the higher bandwidth connection on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter even if it has to cache the data before sending it (hence why the MRO didn’t beam the first pictures back, it would’ve taken too long).
All of the pictures we’ve seen so far have been from underneath the rover and that’s primarily due to the system verification that’s taking place. The images come from the hazard cameras mounted on the underside of Curiosity and traditionally they’ll be used to identify potential obstacles so that the rover can navigate around them. This is why they’re not colour nor particularly high resolution but the good news is that Curiosity has probably the most impressive imaging hardware of any rover to date just waiting to be turned on. Probably the most exciting part about Curiosity’s main camera is the fact that it will be able to capture true colour images, something that past rovers have had to fudge with coloured filters and post processing (which get close, but aren’t true to life).
Curiosity’s mission is to investigate Mar’s past and see how conducive to life it might have been. It’s not directly looking for life on Mars, that kind of mission would require a whole other set of dedicated tools, but what it’s looking for are what we believe are the precursors for life as we know it. Additionally Curiosity will asses Mars’ current and past meteorological conditions, both for pure scientific reasons and also to provide information to possible future manned missions to Mars, something which SpaceX has expressed a keen interest in accomplishing within the next decade. Considering the size of the total payload, almost 900KG, I’m sure it will have no trouble accomplishing its primary mission and quite possibly much more thereafter.
Curiosity’s power source is a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator that’s quite capable of powering the rover for its planned 1 Martian year mission. Now whilst it might not have the solar panels of its predecessors its internal generator is good for 14 years at up to 80% of its peak power production meaning that Curiosity could well give Spirit and Opportunity a run for their money in terms of longevity. Considering just how many instruments are aboard this rover I can see an extended mission proving extremely valuable both in scientific terms as well as becoming the next symbol of NASA’s prowess when it comes to building amazing machines.
A friend of mine asked me this morning if I still had a smile on my face courtesy of NASA and in all honesty I did. I shed a tear when I heard the words “touch down” and shared in the revelry that went on in the Mission Support Area via the NASA TV live feed and just writing that sentence out was enough to bring back the feeling of excitement and joy I felt back then. Curiosity’s mission has only just begun but I can’t help but feel that its been a major success for all involved and I eagerly look forward to everything that this giant rover has to bring us.
It’s a great time for science, space and humanity.