Friday, March 15, 2013

Big Week On Mars

Since we haven't checked in with the Mars Science Laboratory, I thought it was time. Here's what popped up on Twitter today, among other places:

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

This mosaic of images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows Mount Sharp in a white-balanced color adjustment that makes the sky look overly blue but shows the terrain as if under Earth-like lighting. White-balancing helps scientists recognize rock materials based on their experience looking at rocks on Earth. The Martian sky would look more of a butterscotch color to the human eye. White balancing yields an overly blue hue in images that have very little blue information, such as Martian landscapes, because the white balancing tends to overcompensate for the low inherent blue content.

Mount Sharp, also called Aeolis Mons, is a layered mound in the center of Mars' Gale Crater, rising more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the crater floor, where Curiosity has been working since the rover's landing in August 2012. Lower slopes of Mount Sharp are the major destination for the mission, though the rover will first spend many more weeks around a location called "Yellowknife Bay," where it has found evidence of a past environment favorable for microbial life.

This mosaic was assembled from dozens of images from the 100-millimeter-focal-length telephoto lens camera mounted on the right side of the Mastcam instrument. The component images were taken during the 45th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's mission on Mars (Sept. 20, 2012). The sky has been filled out by extrapolating color and brightness information from the portions of the sky that were captured in images of the terrain.

A raw-color version of the mosaic is available at PIA16769. Raw color shows the scene's colors as they would look in a typical smart-phone camera photo.

[I've added the raw image here - Cujo359]

Image credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS

PIA16768: Mount Sharp Panorama in White-Balanced Colors

[Click images to enlarge. Blogger limits the size of the image files I can publish here. If you want the full size images, visit the image credit links.]

Since what gives us the "Earth-like lighting" we have here on Earth is a result of our atmosphere's effect on the sunlight that hits us, I suppose blue is a good color. What you'd see if you were on Mars is probably more like the second photo, assuming your space suit's visor was clear, of course.

What has Curiosity found since it's been in Yellowknife? Only this:

An analysis of a rock sample collected by NASA's Curiosity rover shows ancient Mars could have supported living microbes.

Scientists identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon -- some of the key chemical ingredients for life -- in the powder Curiosity drilled out of a sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater on the Red Planet last month.

"A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "From what we know now, the answer is yes."

Clues to this habitable environment come from data returned by the rover's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments. The data indicate the Yellowknife Bay area the rover is exploring was the end of an ancient river system or an intermittently wet lake bed that could have provided chemical energy and other favorable conditions for microbes. The rock is made up of a fine-grained mudstone containing clay minerals, sulfate minerals and other chemicals.

Caption: Curiosity rover makes its first drill sample in a rock at Yellowknife, Feb. 8, 2013. Even though the rock contains iron, it's gray, unlike the iron on Mars' surface. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


Curiosity's drill collected the sample at a site just a few hundred yards away from where the rover earlier found an ancient streambed in September 2012.


Scientists were surprised to find a mixture of oxidized, less-oxidized, and even non-oxidized chemicals, providing an energy gradient of the sort many microbes on Earth exploit to live. This partial oxidation was first hinted at when the drill cuttings were revealed to be gray rather than red.

NASA Rover Finds Conditions Once Suited for Ancient Life on Mars

I'll point out the obvious, since it's what I do - mudstone forms in water. Many sedimentary rocks do. So, perhaps a billion years ago, Mars had water and the ingredients that enabled life to form on Earth. It might have formed on Mars, too.

So, big pictures, plus signs of life. It was a pretty big week for Curiosity.

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