Archive for the ‘Solar System’ Category

Dawn’s Downward Spiral to Reveal New World Views

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft at Ceres
Artist’s concept of Dawn in its high altitude mapping orbit at dwarf planet Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL

Dear Mastodawns,

Deep in the main asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter, far from Earth, far from the sun, far now even from the giant protoplanet Vesta that it orbited for 14 months, Dawn flies with its sights set on dwarf planet Ceres. Using the uniquely efficient, whisper-like thrust of its remarkable ion propulsion system, the interplanetary adventurer is making good progress toward its rendezvous with the uncharted, alien world in about nine months.

Dawn’s ambitious mission of exploration will require it to carry out a complex plan at Ceres. In December, we had a preview of the “fapproach phase,” and in January, we saw how the high velocity beam of xenon ions will let the ship slip smoothly into Ceres’s gravitational embrace. We followed that with a description in February of the first of four orbital phases (with the delightfully irreverent name RC3), in which the probe will scrutinize the exotic landscape from an altitude of 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers). We saw in April how the spacecraft will take advantage of the extraordinary maneuverability of ion propulsion to spiral from one observation orbit to another, each one lower than the one before, and each one affording a more detailed view of the exotic world of rock and ice. The second orbit, at an altitude of about 2,730 miles (4,400 kilometers), known to insiders (like you, faithful reader) as “survey orbit,” was the topic of our preview in May. This month, we will have an overview of the plan for the third and penultimate orbital phase, the “high altitude mapping orbit” (HAMO).

(The origins of the names of the phases are based on ancient ideas, and the reasons are, or should be, lost in the mists of time. Readers should avoid trying to infer anything at all meaningful in the designations. After some careful consideration, your correspondent chose to use the same names the Dawn team uses rather than create more helpful descriptors for the purposes of these logs. What is important is not what the different orbits are called but rather what amazing new discoveries each one enables.)

It will take Dawn almost six weeks to descend to HAMO, where it will be 910 miles (1,470 kilometers) high, or three times closer to the mysterious surface than in survey orbit. As we have seen before, a lower orbit, whether around Ceres, Earth, the sun, or the Milky Way galaxy, means greater orbital velocity to balance the stronger gravitational grip. In HAMO, the spacecraft will complete each loop around Ceres in 19 hours, only one quarter of the time it will take in survey orbit.

In formulating the HAMO plans, Dawn’s human colleagues (most of whom reside much, much closer to Earth than the spacecraft does) have taken advantage of their tremendous successes with HAMO1 and HAMO2 at Vesta. We will see below, however, there is one particularly interesting difference.

As in all observation phases at Ceres (and Vesta), Dawn’s orbital path will take it from pole to pole and back. It will fly over the sunlit side as it travels from north to south and then above the side in the deep darkness of night on the northward segment of each orbit. This polar orbit ensures a view of all latitudes. As Ceres pirouettes on its axis, it presents all longitudes to the orbiting observer. The mission planners have choreographed the celestial pas de deux so that in a dozen revolutions, Dawn’s camera can map nearly the entire surface.

Graphic showing Dawn's spiral descent from survey orbit to HAMO
Dawn’s spiral descent from survey orbit to the high altitude mapping orbit. The trajectory progresses from blue to red over the course of the six weeks. The red dashed segments are where the spacecraft is not thrusting with its ion propulsion system (as explained in April). Credit: NASA/JPL

Rather than mapping once, however, the spacecraft will map Ceres up to six times. One of Dawn’s many objectives is to develop a topographical map, revealing the detailed contours of the terrain, such as the depths of craters, the heights of mountains, and the slopes and variations of plains. To do so, it will follow the same strategy employed so successfully at Vesta, by taking pictures at different angles, much like stereo imaging. The spacecraft will make its first HAMO map by aiming its camera straight down, photographing the ground directly beneath it. Then it will map the surface again with the camera pointed in a slightly different direction, and it will repeat this for a total of six maps, or six mapping “cycles.” With views from up to six different perspectives, the landscape will pop from flat images into its full three dimensionality. (As with all the plans, engineers recognize that complex and challenging operations in the forbidding, unforgiving depths of space do not always go as intended. So they plan to collect more data than they need. If some of the images, or even entire maps, are not acquired, there should still be plenty of pictures to use in revealing the topography.)

In addition to acquiring the photos, Dawn will make other measurements in HAMO. During some of the cycles, the camera will use its color filters to glean more about the nature of the surface. The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer will collect spectra to help scientists determine the composition of the surface, its temperature, and other properties.

Exquisitely accurate radio tracking of the spacecraft in its orbit, as indicated by the Doppler shift (the change in frequency, or pitch, as the craft moves toward or away from Earth) and by the time it takes radio signals to make the round trip from Earth, allows navigators to determine the strength of the gravitational tugging. That can be translated into not only the mass of Ceres but also how the mass is distributed in its interior. In August, when we look ahead to the fourth and final science phase of the Ceres mission, the low altitude mapping orbit, we will explain this in greater detail.

Although still too high for anything but the weakest indication of radiation from Ceres, the gamma ray and neutron detector will measure the radiation environment in HAMO. This will yield a useful reference for the stronger signals it will detect when it is closer.

There is a noteworthy difference between how Dawn will operate in HAMO and how it operated in HAMO1 and HAMO2 at Vesta and even how it will operate in survey orbit at Ceres.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s June 30, 2014, Dawn Journal


Slice of History: Temperature Structure Radiometer

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

By Julie Cooper

Each month in “Slice of History” we feature a historical photo from the JPL Archives. See more historical photos and explore the JPL Archives at https://beacon.jpl.nasa.gov/.

Temperature Structure Radiometer
Temperature Structure Radiometer — Photograph number P-23396B

In 1979 there was a Clear Air Turbulence (CAT) Flight Test Program at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory that used a microwave radiometer to measure the temperature at various altitudes in order to map the inversion layers that can cause turbulence for aircraft.

In 1980 a new 55 GHz radiometer was developed by the Microwave Observational Systems Section (383) to passively measure the temperature of oxygen molecules in the air. The Temperature Structure Radiometer (TSR) was flown over the western United States on a NASA CV-990 aircraft based at Ames Research Center. It was mounted inside the cabin, with a view through a special microwave-transparent window. An HP 9825 desktop computer controlled the scan sequence, recorded raw data and converted the readings to an “altitude temperature profile” display. With the information provided by a CAT avoidance sensor, pilots would be able to navigate to a smoother altitude for greater safety and comfort. In this 1981 photo, Bruce Gary (senior scientist, Observational Systems Division, at right) and Jim Johnston (383 section manager) look at the new TSR.

This post was written for “Historical Photo of the Month,” a blog by Julie Cooper of JPL’s Library and Archives Group.


Survey Orbit: A Truly Extaordinary View

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Dear Dawnosaurs,

Silently streaking through the main asteroid belt, emitting a blue-green beam of xenon ions, Dawn continues its ambitious interplanetary expedition. On behalf of creatures on distant Earth who seek not only knowledge and insight but also bold adventure, the spacecraft is heading toward its appointment with Ceres. In about 10 months, it will enter orbit around the ancient survivor from the dawn of the solar system, providing humankind with its first detailed view of a dwarf planet.

This month we continue with the preview of how Dawn will explore Ceres. In December we focused on the “approach phase,” and in January we described how the craft spirals gracefully into orbit with its extraordinary ion propulsion system. The plans for the first observational orbit (with a marvelously evocative name for a first examination of an uncharted world: RC3 — is that cool, or what?), at an altitude of 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers), were presented in FebruaryLast month, we followed Dawn on its spiral descent from each orbital altitude to the next, with progressively lower orbits providing better views than the ones before. Now we can look ahead to the second orbital phase, survey orbit.

Survey orbit

This figure shows Dawn’s second observational orbit, “survey orbit,” at the same scale as the size of Ceres. At an altitude of 2,730 miles (4,400 kilometers), the spacecraft will make seven revolutions in about three weeks. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
› Larger image

In survey orbit, Dawn will make seven revolutions at an altitude of about 2,730 miles (4,400 kilometers). At that distance, each orbit will take three days and three hours. Mission planners chose an orbit period close to what they used for survey orbit at Vesta, allowing them to take advantage of many of the patterns in the complex choreography they had already developed. Dawn performed it so beautifully that it provides an excellent basis for the Ceres encore. Of course, there are some adjustments, mostly in the interest of husbanding precious hydrazine propellant in the wake of the loss of two of the spacecraft’s four reaction wheels. (Although such a loss could have dire consequences for some missions, the resourceful Dawn team has devised a plan that can achieve all of the original objectives regardless of the condition of the reaction wheels.)

We had a preview of survey orbit at Vesta four years ago, and we reviewed the wonderfully successful outcome in September 2011. When we develop the capability to travel backwards in time, we will insert a summary of what occurred in survey orbit at Ceres here: _______…… Well, nothing yet. So, let’s continue with the preview.

As in all phases at Ceres (and Vesta), Dawn follows what space trajectory experts (and geeks) call a polar orbit. The ship’s course will take it above the north pole, and then it will sail south over the side bathed in the light of the sun. After flying over the south pole, Dawn will head north. Although the surface beneath it will be dark, the spacecraft will be high enough that it will not enter the dwarf planet’s shadow. The distant sun will constantly illuminate the large solar arrays.

The leisurely pace in survey orbit allows the explorer to gather a wealth of data during the more than 37 hours on the day side. It will train its science camera and visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) on the surface lit by the sun. The camera will collect hundreds of images using all seven of its color filters. It will reveal details three times finer than it observed in RC3 orbit and 70 times sharper than the best we have from the Hubble Space Telescope. VIR will acquire millions of spectra to help scientists determine the minerals present as well as the temperature and other properties of the surface. While the sensors are pointed at the surface, the main antenna cannot simultaneously be aimed at Earth, so the robot will store its pictures and spectra.

One Cerean day, the time it takes Ceres to rotate once on its axis, is a little over nine hours. (For comparison, Earth, as some of its residents and visitors know, takes 24 hours. Jupiter turns in just under 10 hours, Vesta in five hours and 21 minutes, and your correspondent’s cat Regulus in about 0.5 seconds when chasing a laser spot.) So as Dawn travels from the north pole to the south pole, Ceres will spin underneath it four times. Dawn will be close enough that even the wide field of view of its camera won’t capture the entire disc below, from horizon to horizon, but over the course of the seven orbits, the probe will see most of the surface. As in developing the plan for Vesta, engineers (like certain murine rodents and male humans) are keenly aware that as careful, as thorough, and as diligent as they are, their schemes don’t always execute perfectly. In the unknown, forbidding depths of space with a complex campaign to carry out, glitches can occur and events can go awry. The plan is designed with the recognition that some observations will not be achieved, but those that are promise great rewards.

Artist's concept of Dawn orbiting Ceres

Artist’s concept of Dawn in its survey orbit at dwarf planet Ceres. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Most of the time, the spacecraft will gaze straight down at the alien terrain immediately beneath it. But on the first, second, and fourth passages over the day side of Ceres, it will spend some of the time looking at the limb against the blackness of space. Pictures with this perspective will not only be helpful for establishing the exact shape of the dwarf planet but they also will provide some very appealing views for eager sightseers on Earth.

In addition to using the camera and VIR, Dawn will measure space radiation with its gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND). GRaND will still be too far from Ceres to sense the nuclear particles emanating from it, but recording the radiation environment will provide a valuable context for the sensitive measurements it will make at lower altitudes.

When Dawn’s orbit takes it over the dark side, it will turn away from the dwarf planet it is studying and toward the planet it left in 2007 where its human colleagues still reside. With its 5-foot (1.52-meter) main antenna, it will spend most of the day and a half radioing its precious findings across uncounted millions of miles (kilometers) of interplanetary space. (Well, you won’t have to count them, but we will.)

In addition to the instrument data it encodes, Dawn’s radio signal will allow scientists and engineers to measure how massive Ceres is. By observing the Doppler shift (the change in frequency caused by the spacecraft’s motion), they can determine how fast the ship moves in orbit. Timing how long the signals (traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light) take to make the round trip, navigators can calculate how far the probe is and hence where it is in its orbit. Combining these (and including other information as well) allows them to compute how strongly Ceres pulls on its orbital companion. The strength of its gravitational force reveals its heft.

By the end of survey orbit, Dawn will have given humankind a truly extraordinary view of a dwarf planet that has been cloaked in mystery despite more than 200 years of telescopic studies. As the exotic world of rock and ice begins to yield its secrets to the robotic ambassador from Earth, we will be transported there. We will behold new landscapes that will simultaneously quench our thirst for exploration and ignite our desire for even more. It is as humankind reaches ever farther into the universe that we demonstrate a part of what it means to be human, combining our burning need for greater understanding with our passion for adventure and our exceptional creativity, resourcefulness and tenacity. As we venture deeper into space, we discover much of what lies deep within ourselves.

Dawn is 7.2 million miles (12 million kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 1.87 AU (174 million miles, or 280 million kilometers) from Earth, or 695 times as far as the moon and 1.84 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 31 minutes to make the round trip.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s May 31, 2014, Dawn Journal


Slice of History: Cassegrain Transmitter Cone

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

By Julie Cooper

Each month in “Slice of History” we feature a historical photo from the JPL Archives. See more historical photos and explore the JPL Archives at https://beacon.jpl.nasa.gov/.

Cassegrain transmitter cone
Cassegrain transmitter cone — Photograph number 331-4281Ac

December 24, 2013, marked 50 years since the official beginning of the Deep Space Network. On that date in 1963, JPL Director William Pickering sent out a memo announcing that the Deep Space Instrumentation Facility, or DSIF, Interstation Communications, and the mission-independent portion of the Space Flight Operations Facility would be combined and renamed the Deep Space Network, or DSN. At that time, the DSIF already included five large antennas in California, Australia, and South Africa, to provide complete communications coverage as the Earth rotates.

The DSIF began with mobile tracking stations that were used to track the Explorer spacecraft, and in 1958 the first 85-foot (26 meter) antenna was built in the Mojave desert, at the Goldstone Tracking Station. As new communications technology developed, new antennas have been added to the DSN sites and existing antennas enlarged or modified to increase their capabilities. This photo shows a Cassegrain cone 100-kw transmitter developed for the 85-foot antenna at the Goldstone Venus site (DSS-13) in Goldstone, Calif. It was placed on a cone test elevator in the high-voltage power supply building at Goldstone and raised up high enough that the radiating feed horn on top of the cone was above the roof line of the building during tests. Development and testing was completed in time for it to be used in communicating with the Mariner 4 spacecraft that went to Mars.

This post was written for “Historical Photo of the Month,” a blog by Julie Cooper of JPL’s Library and Archives Group.


Habitability, Taphonomy, and Curiosity’s Hunt for Organic Carbon

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

By John Grotzinger
This blog entry from John Grotzinger, the project scientist for NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, was originally prepared for use by the Planetary Society and explains the importance of some of the rover’s findings.

Curiosity Selfie

This self-portrait of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 177th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (Feb. 3, 2013), plus three exposures taken during Sol 270 (May 10, 2013)
› Full image and caption

It was fun for me to catch up with Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society at the American Geophysical Union meeting, and to discuss our new Curiosity mission results. They focus on the discovery of an ancient habitable environment; we are now transitioning to the focused search for organic carbon. What’s great about Emily’s blog is that with her strong science background she is able to take complex mission results and translate these into something that can reach a broader and more diverse audience. I’ll try to do the same here.

Since we first reported our results on March 12, 2013, from drilling in Yellowknife Bay it has been my experience that lots of people ask questions about how the Curiosity mission, and future missions, will forge ahead to begin with looking for evidence of past life on Mars. There is nothing simple or straightforward about looking for life, so I was pleased to have the chance to address some of the questions and challenges that we find ourselves most frequently discussing with friends and colleagues. The Planetary Society’s blog is an ideal place to take the time to delve into this.

I also need to state at the outset that what you’ll read below is my opinion, as Curiosity science team member and Earth geobiologist, and not necessarily as its Project Scientist. And I have only worked on Mars science for a decade. However, I can say that many other members of the Curiosity team share this opinion, generated from their own experiences similar to mine, and it was easy for us to adopt these ideas to apply to our future mission. To a large extent, this opinion is shaped by our experience of having spent decades trying to explore the early record of life on Earth. As veterans of the Mars Exploration Rover and Curiosity missions, we have learned that while Mars has significant differences from Earth, it also has some surprising similarities that could be important in the search for evidence of ancient Martian life - a “paleobiosphere,” if you will. The bottom line is that even for Earth, a planet that teems with life, the search for ancient life is always difficult and often frustrating. It takes a while to succeed. I’ll try to explain why later on.

So here goes….

The Dec. 9, 2013, publication of the Curiosity team’s six papers in Science provides the basis for understanding a potentially habitable environment on ancient Mars. The search for habitable environments motivated building the rover, and to that end the Curiosity mission has accomplished its principal objective. This naturally leads to the questions of what’s next, and how we go about exploring for organic carbon?

To better understand where we’re coming from, it helps to break down these questions and analyze them separately. With future advocacy of missions to Mars so uncertain, and with difficult-to-grasp mission objectives located between “the search for water” (everyone got that) and “the search for life” (everyone wants NASA to get on with it), the “search for habitability” and the “search for carbon” are important intermediate steps. By focusing on them scientists can identify specific materials to study with more sophisticated future missions and instruments, or to select for sample return, or to be the target of life detection experiments.

Note: You can get access to all six of these Science papers here or here. The latter site also has the papers we published back in September. Science has a policy that allows us to post a “referrer link” to our home websites. This redirects the query to AAAS, where the paper can be downloaded without cost.

Habitability

Let’s start with “habitability.” We reported the discovery of an ancient lake, and one that formed clay minerals. The presence of clays represents more benign environmental conditions than the acid sulfates found by Spirit and Opportunity. However, clays are not the only thing needed to demonstrate habitability. The bar is high: In brief, a mission needs to demonstrate the presence of water, key elements regarded as the building blocks of life (including carbon), and a source of energy. And you need to find them all together, and at the same instant in geologic time. In turn, each one of these must be characterized further to qualify an environment as having been habitable. Finally, it’s never black and white; understanding habitability is part of a broad continuum of environmental assessment, which is why orbiters and earlier rovers and landers are important assets in this process as well.

It is also important to define what group of organisms is being imagined to have inhabited the environments - their requirements will vary. Single-celled microorganisms are a great place to start based on our understanding of the early evolution of life on Earth, which was dominated by microbes for at least the first two billion years of the planet’s history. More specifically, the Curiosity team has been focusing on the conditions of habitability relevant to “chemolithotrophs,” a group of microbes that feeds on chemical energy available in rocks.

Water.

The water of a habitable environment should be relatively fresh, or at least not contain so much salt that the relative abundance of water is so low (what chemists call “water activity”) that the osmotic pressure on cells would cause them to collapse. My favorite analog here is honey. Yes, it’s an aqueous environment but no, it’s not habitable: The sugar content is so high that microbes can’t live in it. This is why honey doesn’t spoil when not refrigerated. Salt serves the same role as sugar; too much salt inhibits life. Acidity is also important, although microbes have been shown to tolerate an extraordinary range of pH, including the very lowest values encountered in natural environments on Earth. However, more moderate pH favors a greater diversity of microorganisms, and thus more options to explore for emerging life forms. Finally, the water needs to last a long time on the surface; the longer, the better. A flow of water emerging on the surface of Mars from an underground source and boiling off in the presence of Mars’ modern low atmospheric pressure is not a good scenario for life. A stable source, such as a very ancient lake, with associated streams, and water flowing through the ground beneath it, is much better. We envision for the lake/stream/groundwater system that Curiosity discovered at Yellowknife Bay that the water could have existed for millions of years potentially. But even shorter periods are viable - the qualitative point here is that the rocks at Yellowknife Bay record more than a one-time event.

Key building blocks of life.

A conventional list of key elements for life will include “CHNOPS” - carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Previous orbiter and landed missions have provided ample evidence for H, O, and S via observations of sulfate and clay minerals, and P was measured by earlier rovers and landers. Curiosity has done the same. The tricky stuff is N and C and, along with P, they must all be “bioavailable,” which means to say they cannot be bound tightly within mineral structures that water and microbial chemical processes could not unlock. Ideally, we are looking for concentrated nitrogen- and phosphorous-bearing sedimentary rocks that would prove these elements were actually dissolved in the past water at some point, and therefore could have been available to enable microorganism metabolism. But in the interim Curiosity has been able to measure N as a volatile compound via pyrolysis (heating up rock powder in the SAM instrument), and P is observed in APXS data. We feel confident that N was available in the ancient environment, however we must infer that P was as well. Two of the Science papers, Grotzinger et al. and Ming et al., discuss this further.

Carbon is the elephant in the room. We’ll discuss organic carbon further below, but here it’s important to make one very important point: Organic carbon in rocks is not a hard-line requirement for habitability, since chemoautotrophs can make the organics they need to build cellular structures from metabolizing carbon dioxide (CO2). These organisms take up inorganic carbon as CO2 dissolved in water to build cellular structures. Organic carbon could serve as fuel if it was first oxidized to CO2, or could be used directly for biomass, or could be part of waste products. As applied to Mars it is therefore attractive to appeal directly to CO2, presumed to have been abundant in its early atmosphere. Curiosity does indeed see substantial carbon generated from the ancient lake deposits we drilled. The CO2 that was measured is consistent with some small amount of mineral carbon present in those lake mudstones. These minerals would represent CO2 in the ancient aqueous environment. Furthermore, it is possible that Martian organic sources have been mixed with inorganic sources of carbon in the mudstone; however, any organic contributions from the mudstone would be mixed with Earth-derived sources during analysis (see Ming et al. paper).

Energy.

All organisms also require fuel to live and reproduce. Here it is essential to know which kind of microorganism we’re talking about, since there are myriad ways for them to harvest energy from the environment. Chemolithotrophs derive energy from chemical reactions, for example by oxidizing reduced chemical species like hydrogen sulfide or ferrous iron. That’s why Curiosity’s discovery of pyrite, pyrrhotite, and magnetite are so important (see Vaniman et al. and Ming et al. papers). They are all more chemically reduced than their counterparts discovered during earlier missions to Mars (for example, sulfate and hematite). Chemolithotrophic microbes, if they had been present on Mars at the time of this ancient environment, would have been able to tap the energy in these reduced chemicals (such as hydrogen sulfide, or reduced iron) to fuel their metabolism. If you are interested in more detail regarding these kinds of microbial processes I can strongly recommend Nealson and Conrad (2000) for a very readable summary of the subject.

The next section describes where I think we’re headed in the future. We’ll continue to explore for aqueous, habitable environments at Mt. Sharp, and along the way to Mt. Sharp. And if we discover any, they will serve as the starting point for seeing if any organic carbon is preserved and, if so, how it became preserved.

Taphonomy

Now there’s a ten-dollar word. Taphonomy is the term paleontologists use to describe how organisms become fossilized. It deals with the processes of preservation. Investigations of organic compounds fit neatly in that category. We do not have to presume that organic compounds are of biologic origin. In fact, in studies of the Earth’s early record of life, we must also presume that any organic materials we find may be of inorganic origin - they may have nothing to do with biology. Scientific research will aim to demonstrate as conclusively as possible that the materials of interest were biogenic in origin. For Earth rocks that are billions of years old, it’s rare to find a truly compelling claim of ancient biogenic carbon. Here’s why.

On a planet that teems with life, one would presume these discoveries would be ordinary. But they aren’t, and that’s why fossils of almost any type, including organic compounds (so-called “chemofossils”), are so cool - it’s because they are rare. That’s also why taphonomy emerged as an important field of study. We need to understand how biologic materials become recorded in Earth’s rock record. It’s important in understanding modes of organism decomposition, to interpret ancient environmental conditions, and in reconstructing ancient ecosystems. But there also is one other reason that is particularly relevant for early Earth, and even more so for Mars: If you want to find something significant, you have to know where to look.

To explore for organics on Mars, three things have to go right. First, you need to have an enrichment of organics in the primary environment where organic molecules accumulate, which is large enough so that your instrument could detect them. Second, the organics have to survive the degrading effects associated with the conversion of sediment to rock. Third, they must survive further degradation caused by exposure of rock to cosmic radiation at Mars’ surface. Even if organics were once present in Martian sediment, conversion to rock and exposure to cosmic radiation may degrade the organics to the point where they can’t be detected.

Organics degrade in two main ways. The first is that during the conversion of sediment to rock, organics may be chemically altered. This generally happens when layers of sediment are deposited one on top of the other, burying earlier-deposited layers. As this happens, the buried sediment is exposed to fluids that drive lithification - the process that converts sediment to rock. Sediments get turned into rocks when water circulates through their pores, precipitating minerals along the linings of the pores. After a while the sediment will no longer feel squishy and it becomes rigid - lithified.

During the process of lithification, a large amount of water may circulate through the rock. It can amount to hundreds, if not thousands, of times the volume of the pore space within the rock. With so much water passing through, often carrying other chemicals with it, any organics that come into contact with the water may be broken down. Chemically, this occurs because organics are reduced substances and many chemicals dissolved in water are oxidizing. Those two chemical states don’t sit well together, and this tends to drive chemical reactions. Simply put, organics could be broken down to the point where the originally organic carbon is converted into inorganic carbon dioxide, a gas that can easily escape the lithifying sediment. Water on Mars may be a good thing for habitability but it can, paradoxically, negatively affect the preservation of organics.

Now, if any organics manage to escape this first step in degradation, then they are still subject to further degradation when the rock is exhumed and exposed to the surface of Mars. There it will be bombarded by cosmic radiation. I won’t go into the details here, but that is also bad news for organics because the radiation tends to break apart organic molecules through a process called ionization. The upper few meters of a rock unit is the most susceptible; below that the radiation effect rapidly dies away. Given enough time the organics could be significantly degraded.

The Hassler et al. paper just published in Science reports that the surface radiation dose measured by Curiosity could, in 650 million years, reduce the concentration of small organic molecules, such as amino acids, by a factor of 1000, all other factors being equal. That’s a big effect - and that’s why we were so excited as a team when we figured out how to measure the cosmogenic exposure age of rocks we drilled (see Emily’s blog and the Farley et al. paper). This gives us a dependable way to preferentially explore for those rocks that have been exposed for the shortest period of time. Furthermore, it is unlikely that organics would be completely eliminated due to radiation effects and the proof of this is that a certain class of meteorites - the carbonaceous chondrites - have been exposed to radiation in space for billions of years and yet still retain complex organics. This provides hope that at least some types of organics should be preserved on Mars.

Being able to account for the radiation history of rocks that Curiosity might drill is a very big step forward for us in the search for organic molecules. It is a big step forward in learning how to explore for past life on Mars (if it ever existed there). Now we have the right tools to guide the search for rocks that might make the best targets for drilling. Coupled with our other instruments that measure the chemistry and mineralogy of the rocks, to help select those that might have seen the least alteration of organics during burial, we have a pretty good sense of what we need to do next. That’s because we have been through this before on Earth.

Magic Minerals

Over the years Emily has written many blogs dedicated to the discovery of interesting minerals on Mars. There are many reasons for this, but I’ll suggest one more that may grow in importance in years to come.

Believe it or not, the story starts with none other than Charles Darwin. In pondering the seemingly instantaneous appearance of fossils representing complex and highly differentiated organisms in Cambrian-age rocks (about 500 million years ago), Darwin recognized this as a major challenge to his view of evolution. He explained the sudden appearance of fossils in the record by postulating that Cambrian organisms with no known antecedents could be explained by “record failure” - for some unknown reason, older rocks simply didn’t record the emergence and evolution of life’s beginning. Conditions weren’t suitable to preserve organisms as fossils.

Most of that story goes on in the direction of evolutionary biology, and we’ll skip that, rather focusing instead on learning more about taphonomy. What is important for Mars was the discovery of minerals that could preserve evidence of early microorganisms on Earth. (For a good read on Precambrian paleobiology, try Andy Knoll’s “Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth.”)

We now know that pre-Cambrian time represents about 4 billion years of Earth’s history, compared to the 540 million years represented by Cambrian and younger rocks that Darwin had studied. (See Emily’s blog on the Geologic time scale.) We also know now that the oldest fossil microbes on Earth are about 3.5 billion years old, and that in between there is a compelling, but very sparse record of the fossil organisms that Darwin had anticipated. However, what’s even more remarkable is that it took 100 years to prove this. And this was with hundreds, maybe thousands, of geologists scouring the far corners of the Earth looking for evidence.

The big breakthrough came in 1954 with the discovery of the “Gunflint microbiota” along the shores of Lake Superior in southern Canada. A University of Wisconsin economic geologist, Stanley Tyler, discovered microscopic threads of what we now understand to be fossil bacteria in a kind of rock called “chert”. Chert is a microcrystalline material formed of the mineral quartz, or silicon dioxide, which precipitates very early in waters that contain microbial colonies. It forms so early that it turns the sediment almost instantly into rock, and any microbes become entombed in a mineral so stable it resists all subsequent exposure to water, and the oxidizing chemicals dissolved in water, for billions of years.

As it turned out, this was the Rosetta stone that helped decipher the code to the field of pre-Cambrian paleontology. It took almost 10 years for the discovery to be fully appreciated (the initial report in Science was viewed with much skepticism), but once it was confirmed, in the mid-1960s, the field exploded. Once geologists and paleontologists knew what to search for, they were off to the races. Since that initial discovery, other magic minerals have been found that preserve ancient microbes, sometimes with spectacular fidelity. But chert is still the mineral of choice, and I never pass by it in the field without collecting some.

We don’t know yet what magic minerals exist on Mars that could have trapped and preserved organics. Clays and sulfates hold promise, and that’s why we’re so interested in them. Silica, perhaps similar to terrestrial chert, has been observed from orbit at a few places on Mars, and in Spirit rover data from Gusev crater. The great thing about Gale crater as a landing site is that we have so many choices in this trial-and-error game of locating a mineral that can preserve organic carbon.

The figure below provides some sense of the impact of this discovery. It is modified from a similar figure published in a very nice summary by Bill Schopf, a Professor of Paleontology at UCLA. Bill also was a very early participant in this race for discovery and has made a number of very significant contributions to the field.

chart

In studying Mars, the importance of this lesson in the search for life preserved in the ancient rock record of Earth cannot be overstated. Curiosity’s discovery of a very Earth-like ancient habitable environment underscores this point. With only one or two rovers every decade, we need to have a search paradigm: something to guide our exploration, something to explain our inevitable failures. If life ever evolved on Mars, we need to have a strategy to find it. That strategy begins with the search for organics, and regardless of their origin - abiotic or biotic, indigenous to Mars or not - they are important tracers for something more significant. Curiosity cannot see microfossils, but it can detect organic compounds. And just as with microfossils on Earth, we first have to learn where organics on Mars might be preserved. So that’s what we’re going to try and do.


Slice of History: Ranger Impact Limiter

Monday, November 4th, 2013

By Julie Cooper

Each month in “Slice of History” we feature a historical photo from the JPL Archives. See more historical photos and explore the JPL Archives at https://beacon.jpl.nasa.gov/.

Ranger Impact Limiter
Ranger Impact Limiter — Photograph number 292-41A

This photo was taken in November 1960 to show the lightweight balsa wood impact limiter that was to be used in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Ranger Block II spacecraft design (Rangers 3, 4, and 5). The woman holding the sphere is Systems Design secretary Pat McKibben. The sphere was 65 cm in diameter, and it surrounded a transmitter and a seismometer instrument that was designed by the Caltech Seismological Laboratory. The sphere would separate from the spacecraft shortly before impact and survive the rough landing on the moon. The capsule was also vacuum-filled with a protective fluid to reduce movement during impact. After landing, the instrument was to float to an upright position, then the fluid would be drained out so it could settle and switch on.

Due to a series of malfunctions in 1962, these three Ranger spacecraft either crashed without returning data or missed the moon. In July 1964, the first successful Ranger spacecraft, Ranger 7, reached the moon and transmitted more than 4,000 images to Earth.

This post was written for “Historical Photo of the Month,” a blog by Julie Cooper of JPL’s Library and Archives Group.


Mariner 4 Taught Us to See

Friday, August 30th, 2013
The first 'image' of Mars from NASA's Mariner 4
Mission team members for NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft, incredibly anxious to see the first up-close photograph of Mars, devised a way to see the image before it made its way to Earth by color-coding binary code on strips of ticker tape. The resulting collage became known as “the first image of Mars.” Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In today’s universe, it seems unimaginable that a planetary spacecraft would leave the comfort of its terrestrial perch without some kind of imaging system on board. But in the early 1960s, as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was reveling in the success of its first planetary mission to Venus and setting its sights on Mars — a destination whose challenges would unfurl themselves much more readily than they had with Venus — for some scientists, the question of camera or none was still just that, a question.

Bud Schurmeier, project manager for NASA’s Ranger missions, a few years ago recalled, “There were a lot of scientists who said, ‘Pictures, that’s not science. That’s just public information.’ Over the years, that attitude has changed so markedly, and so much information has been obtained just from the photographs.”

The recent passing of former JPL Director and career-long planetary imaging advocate Bruce C. Murray, 81, is a reminder of how different our understanding of the planets — and our appreciation of them — would be without space-based cameras.

This truth was evident as early as 1965, when NASA’s Mariner 4, carrying an imaging system designed by a young Murray and his colleagues, arrived at Mars. It marked the world’s first encounter with the Red Planet, a remarkable achievement in itself. But for an anxious press, public and mission team, the Holy Grail lay in catching that first glimpse of Mars up-close.

It was a waiting game that was too much for some. For everyone, in fact:


This is a clip from the JPL-produced film The Changing Face of Mars about the laboratory’s early attempts to explore the Red Planet. Credit: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

What resulted became known as “The first image of Mars.” And in many ways it symbolizes — more than any of the actual 22 photographs captured by Mariner 4 — how significant this opportunity to truly “see” Mars had been.

Now, nearly 50 years after Mariner 4’s arrival at Mars, imaging systems are an integral piece of our quest to understand the planets and the universe beyond, playing key roles in scientific investigations, spacecraft navigation and public support for missions. It’s because of that first image that we can now look at that red dot in the night sky and picture what has become our new reality of Mars:

Curiosity's first billion pixel panorama
This image is a portion of a billion-pixel panorama from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity that combines 900 images taken by the rover from Oct. 5 through Nov. 16, 2012 from its “Rocknest” site on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
› Explore the full panorama

Smooth Sailing: Dawn Spacecraft Passes Endurance Test

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Mosaic of Dawn's images of asteroid Vesta
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Confidawnts,

Traveling from one alien world to another, Dawn is reliably powering its way through the main asteroid belt with its ion propulsion system. Vesta, the fascinating and complex protoplanet it explored in 2011 and 2012, falls farther and farther behind as the spacecraft gently and patiently reshapes its orbit around the sun, aiming for a 2015 rendezvous with dwarf planet Ceres.

The stalwart adventurer has recently completed its longest uninterrupted ion thrust period yet. As part of the campaign to conserve precious hydrazine propellant, Dawn now suspends thrusting once every four weeks to point its main antenna to Earth. (In contrast, spacecraft with conventional chemical propulsion spend the vast majority of time coasting.) Because of details of the mission operations schedule and the schedule for NASA’s Deep Space Network, the thrust durations can vary by a few days. As a result, the spacecraft spent 31.2 days thrusting without a hiatus. This exceeds Deep Space 1’s longest sustained powered flight of 29.2 days. While there currently are no plans to thrust for longer times, the unique craft certainly is capable of doing so. The principal limitation is how much data it can store on the performance of all subsystems (pressures, temperatures, currents, voltages, valve positions, etc.) for subsequent reporting to its terrestrial colleagues.

Thanks to the ship’s dependability, the operations team has been able to devote much of its energies recently to developing and refining the complex plans for the exploration of Ceres. You might be among the privileged readers who will get a preview when we begin describing the plans later this year.

Controllers also have devised some special activities for the spacecraft to perform in the near future, accounts of which are predicted to be in the next two logs.

In addition, team members have had time to maintain their skills for when the spacecraft needs more attention. Earlier this month, they conducted an operational readiness test (ORT). One diabolical engineer carefully configured the Dawn spacecraft simulator at JPL to behave as if a pebble one-half of a centimeter (one-fifth of an inch) in diameter shooting through the asteroid belt collided with the probe at well over twice the velocity of a high-performance rifle bullet.

When the explorer entered this region of space, we discussed that it was not as risky as residents of other parts of the solar system might assume. Dawn does not require Han Solo’s piloting skills to avoid most of the dangerous rocky debris.

The robot could tolerate such a wound, but it would require some help from operators to resume normal operations. This exercise presented the spacecraft team with an opportunity to spend several days working through the diagnosis and performing the steps necessary to continue the mission (using some of the ship’s backup systems). While the specific problem is extremely unlikely to occur, the ORT provided valuable training for new members of the project and served to keep others sharp.

One more benefit of the smooth operations is the time that it enables your correspondent to write his third shortest log ever. (Feel free to do the implied research.) Frequent readers can only hope he strives to achieve such a gratifying feat again!

Dawn is 13 million kilometers (7.9 million miles) from Vesta and 54 million kilometers (34 million miles) from Ceres. It is also 3.25 AU (486 million kilometers or 302 million miles) from Earth, or 1,275 times as far as the moon and 3.20 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 54 minutes to make the round trip.

› Read previous Dawn Journals by Marc Rayman


To Be in the Right Place, Dawn Catches Up With Time

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

The Dawn spacecraft's orbits
In this graphic of Dawn’s interplanetary trajectory, the thin solid lines represent the orbits of Earth, Mars, Vesta and Ceres. After leaving Vesta, Dawn’s orbit temporarily takes it closer to the Sun than Vesta, although in this view they are so close together the difference is not visible because of the thickness of the lines. Dawn will remain in orbit around Ceres at the end of its primary mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Dawnscerning Readers,

Nearly three times as far from Earth as the sun is, the Dawn spacecraft is making very good progress on its ambitious trek from Vesta to Ceres. After a spectacular adventure at the second most massive resident of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Dawn used its extraordinary ion propulsion system to leave it behind and undertake the long journey to a dwarf planet.

Ceres orbits the sun outside Vesta’s orbit, yet Dawn is now closer to the sun than both of these alien worlds. How can it be that as the probe climbs from one to the other, it seems to be falling inward? Perhaps the answer lies in the text below; let’s venture on and find out!

On Halloween we discussed why Dawn is heading in toward the sun, but this question is different. Vesta also is getting closer to the sun, but what’s of interest now is that Dawn, despite its more remote destination, has been approaching the sun more quickly. That earlier log stands out as the best one ever written on this exciting mission in the entire history of October 2012, but if you prefer not to visit it now, we can summarize here the explanation for the spacecraft moving toward the sun. Like all members of the sun’s entourage, Vesta and Ceres follow elliptical orbits, their distances from the master of the solar system growing and shrinking as they loop around it. Even Earth’s orbit, although nearly round, certainly is not perfectly circular. Our planet is a little closer to the sun in the northern hemisphere winter (southern hemisphere summer) than it is in the summer (southern hemisphere winter). Dawn’s orbit is elliptical as well, so it naturally moves nearer to the sun sometimes, and now is such a time. But that does not address why it is currently closer to the sun than Vesta, even though it is seeking out the more distant Ceres.

Because it will orbit Ceres, and not simply fly past it (which would be significantly easier but less valuable), Dawn must make its own orbit around the sun be identical to its target’s. But that is not the entire story. After spending 14 months orbiting Vesta, Dawn’s challenge is more than to change the shape of its orbit to match Ceres’s. The spacecraft also must be at the same place in Ceres’s heliocentric orbit that Ceres itself is.

It would not be very rewarding to follow the same looping path around the sun but always be somewhere else on that path. You can visualize this if you have one of the many defective — er, exotic clocks from the Dawn gift shop on your planet that have two minute hands. If the clock starts with one hand pointed at 12 and another pointed at 1, they will take the same repetitive route, but neither hand will ever catch up with the other. For Dawn’s goal of exploring Ceres, this would not prove satisfying. Therefore, part of the objective of the ion thrusting is to ensure the spacecraft arrives not only on the same heliocentric course as Ceres but is there when Ceres is also.

This is a problem familiar to all readers who have maneuvered in orbit, where the principles of orbital mechanics are the rules of the road. To solve it, we rely on one of the laws that we have addressed many times in these logs: objects in a lower orbit travel faster. We described this in more detail in February, and we can recall the essential idea here. The gravitational attraction of any body, whether it is the sun, Earth, a black hole, or anything else, is greater at shorter ranges. So to balance that strong inward pull, an orbiter is compelled to race around quickly. At higher orbits, where gravity is weaker, a more leisurely orbital pace suffices.

We can take advantage of this characteristic of orbits. If we drop to a slightly lower orbit, we travel along more swiftly. That is precisely what Dawn needs to do in order to ensure that when it finishes expanding and tilting its orbit in 2015 so that it is the same as Ceres’s, it winds up at the same location as its target. This would be like speeding up the minute hand that had begun at the 12, allowing it to catch up with the hand that would otherwise always be leading it.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal


Slice of History: 100 Kilogauss Magnet

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

By Julie Cooper

Each month in “Slice of History” we feature a historical photo from the JPL Archives. See more historical photos and explore the JPL Archives at https://beacon.jpl.nasa.gov/.

100 kilogauss magnet
100 kilogauss magnet — Photograph Number 328-430Ac

An intense magnetic field facility was completed in 1964 by the Physics Section of the Space Sciences Division at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It was intended for use in studying superconductors, spectroscopy and new materials, and in other experiments where a wider range of measurements was possible because of the high magnetic field. This photo shows the magnet at center. The system also included a control room, cooling tower, pumps and a heat exchanger. The generator was located in a separate room because of the noise. Water was pumped through the magnet at about 440 gallons per minute, to regulate the temperature of the large copper coil in the center of the magnet. The closed loop system contained distilled water with sodium nitrite for corrosion control.

According to a technical report about the facility, the magnetic field of the magnet and bus bars penetrated nearby rooms to a depth of about 30 feet. Any iron that could be attracted to the magnet had to be removed from the area.

This post was written for “Historical Photo of the Month,” a blog by Julie Cooper of JPL’s Library and Archives Group.