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Concept: Mars Science Laboratory


The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, containing the Curiosity rover, was launched to Mars on 26 November 2011, and for most of the 253-day, 560-million-kilometer cruise to Mars, the Radiation Assessment Detector made detailed measurements of the energetic particle radiation environment inside the spacecraft. These data provide insights into the radiation hazards that would be associated with a human mission to Mars. We report measurements of the radiation dose, dose equivalent, and linear energy transfer spectra. The dose equivalent for even the shortest round-trip with current propulsion systems and comparable shielding is found to be 0.66 ± 0.12 sievert.

Concepts: Mars, Spacecraft, NASA, Mars Science Laboratory


Wind blowing over sand on Earth produces decimeter-wavelength ripples and hundred-meter- to kilometer-wavelength dunes: bedforms of two distinct size modes. Observations from the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reveal that Mars hosts a third stable wind-driven bedform, with meter-scale wavelengths. These bedforms are spatially uniform in size and typically have asymmetric profiles with angle-of-repose lee slopes and sinuous crest lines, making them unlike terrestrial wind ripples. Rather, these structures resemble fluid-drag ripples, which on Earth include water-worked current ripples, but on Mars instead form by wind because of the higher kinematic viscosity of the low-density atmosphere. A reevaluation of the wind-deposited strata in the Burns formation (about 3.7 billion years old or younger) identifies potential wind-drag ripple stratification formed under a thin atmosphere.

Concepts: Mars, Spacecraft, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Exploration Rover, Mars Science Laboratory, Rover, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Atmosphere of Mars


Spacecraft exploring Mars such as the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, as well as the Mars Science Laboratory or Curiosity rover, have accumulated evidence for wet and habitable conditions on early Mars more than 3 billion years ago. Current conditions, by contrast, are cold, extremely arid and seemingly inhospitable. To evaluate exactly how dry today’s environment is, it is important to understand the ongoing current weathering processes. Here we present chemical weathering rates determined for Mars. We use the oxidation of iron in stony meteorites investigated by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity at Meridiani Planum. Their maximum exposure age is constrained by the formation of Victoria crater and their minimum age by erosion of the meteorites. The chemical weathering rates thus derived are ∼1 to 4 orders of magnitude slower than that of similar meteorites found in Antarctica where the slowest rates are observed on Earth.

Concepts: Mars, NASA, Opportunity rover, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Exploration Rover, Mars Science Laboratory, Rover, Jet Propulsion Laboratory


The Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity scooped samples of soil from the Rocknest aeolian bedform in Gale crater. Analysis of the soil with the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) x-ray diffraction (XRD) instrument revealed plagioclase (~An57), forsteritic olivine (~Fo62), augite, and pigeonite, with minor K-feldspar, magnetite, quartz, anhydrite, hematite, and ilmenite. The minor phases are present at, or near, detection limits. The soil also contains 27 ± 14 weight percent x-ray amorphous material, likely containing multiple Fe(3+)- and volatile-bearing phases, including possibly a substance resembling hisingerite. The crystalline component is similar to the normative mineralogy of certain basaltic rocks from Gusev crater on Mars and of martian basaltic meteorites. The amorphous component is similar to that found on Earth in places such as soils on the Mauna Kea volcano, Hawaii.

Concepts: Chemistry, Mars, Mineral, Basalt, Mauna Kea, Mars Exploration Rover, Mars Science Laboratory, Rover


The putative occurrence of methane in the Martian atmosphere has had a major influence on the exploration of Mars, especially by the implication of active biology. The occurrence has not been borne out by measurements of atmosphere by the MSL rover Curiosity but, as on Earth, methane on Mars is most likely in the subsurface of the crust. Serpentinization of olivine-bearing rocks, to yield hydrogen that may further react with carbon-bearing species, has been widely invoked as a source of methane on Mars, but this possibility has not hitherto been tested. Here we show that some Martian meteorites, representing basic igneous rocks, liberate a methane-rich volatile component on crushing. The occurrence of methane in Martian rock samples adds strong weight to models whereby any life on Mars is/was likely to be resident in a subsurface habitat, where methane could be a source of energy and carbon for microbial activity.

Concepts: Water, Earth, Mars, Igneous rock, Granite, NASA, Life on Mars, Mars Science Laboratory


Here, we present the draft genome of Bacillus safensis JPL-MERTA-8-2, a strain found in a spacecraft assembly cleanroom before launch of the Mars Exploration Rovers. The assembly contains 3,671,133 bp in 14 contigs.

Concepts: Human Genome Project, Virus, Space exploration, NASA, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Exploration Rover, Mars Science Laboratory, Mars Global Surveyor


In situ radiogenic isotope measurements to obtain the absolute age of geologic events on planets are of great scientific value. In particular, K-Ar isochrons are useful because of their relatively high technical readiness and high accuracy. Because this isochron method involves spot-by-spot K measurements using laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) and simultaneous Ar measurements with mass spectrometry, LIBS measurements are conducted under a high vacuum condition in which emission intensity decreases significantly. Furthermore, using a laser power used in previous planetary missions is preferable to examine the technical feasibility of this approach. However, there have been few LIBS measurements for K under such conditions. In this study, we measured K contents in rock samples using 30 mJ and 15 mJ energy lasers under a vacuum condition (10(-3 )Pa) to assess the feasibility of in situ K-Ar dating with lasers comparable to those used in NASA’s Curiosity and Mars 2020 missions. We obtained various calibration curves for K using internal normalization with the oxygen line at 777 nm and continuum emission from the laser-induced plasma. Experimental results indicate that when K2O < 1.1 wt%, a calibration curve using the intensity of the K emission line at 769 nm normalized with that of the oxygen line yields the best results for the 30 mJ laser energy, with a detection limit of 88 ppm and 20% of error at 2400 ppm of K2O. Futhermore, the calibration curve based on the K 769 nm line intensity normalized with continuum emission yielded the best result for the 15 mJ laser, giving a detection limit of 140 ppm and 20% error at 3400 ppm K2O. Error assessments using obtained calibration models indicate that a 4 Ga rock with 3000 ppm K2O would be measured with 8% (30 mJ) and 10% (15 mJ) of precision in age when combined with mass spectrometry of (40)Ar with 10% of uncertainty. These results strongly suggest that high precision in situ isochron K-Ar dating is feasible with a laser used in previous and upcoming Mars rover missions.

Concepts: Spectroscopy, Light, Measurement, Metrology, Laser, Isotope, Calibration curve, Mars Science Laboratory


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) measures and validates the biological cleanliness of spacecraft surfaces by counting endospores using the NASA standard assay (NSA). NASA has also approved an adenosine-5'-triphosphate (ATP)-based detection methodology as a means to prescreen surfaces for the presence of microbial contamination, prior to the spore assay. During Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft assembly, test, and launch operations, 4853 surface samples were collected to verify compliance with the bioburden requirement at launch. A subset of these samples was measured for microbial cleanliness using both the NSA (n = 272) and ATP assay (n = 249). NSA results revealed that ~8% (22/272) of the samples showed the presence of at least one spore, whereas ATP assay measurements indicated that ~15% (35/249) of samples exceeded the “threshold cleanliness limit” of 2.3 × 10(-11) mmol ATP per 25 cm(2) used by MSL. Of the 22 NSA samples with a spore, 18% (4/22) were considered above the level of acceptance by both techniques. Based on post launch data analysis presented here, it was determined that this threshold cleanliness limit of 2.3 × 10(-11) mmol ATP per 25 cm(2) could be adopted as a benchmark for assessing spacecraft surface cleanliness. This study clearly demonstrates the value of using alternative methods to rapidly assess spacecraft cleanliness, and provides useful information regarding the process.

Concepts: Measurement, Validation, Mars, Test method, Spacecraft, Space exploration, NASA, Mars Science Laboratory


Great advances are expected during the analysis of drilled material acquired from 2 m depth by ExoMars rover, supported by the comparison to local context, and the joint use of different instruments. Textural information might be less detailed relatively to what is usually obtained at outcrops during classical geological field work on the Earth, partly because of the lack of optical imaging of the borehole wall and also because the collected samples are crushed. However sub-mm scale layering and some other sedimentary features might be identified in the borehole wall observations, or in the collected sample prior to crushing, and also at nearby outcrops. The candidate landing sites provide different targets and focus for research: Oxia Planum requires analysis of phyllosilicates and OH content, at Mawrth Vallis the layering of various phyllosilicates and the role of shallow-subsurface leaching should be emphasized. At Aram Dorsum the particle size and fluvial sedimentary features will be interesting. Hydrated perchlorates and sulphates are ideal targets possibly at every landing sites because of OH retention, especially if they are mixed with smectites, thus could point to even ancient wet periods. Extensive use of information from the infrared wall scanning will be complemented for geological context by orbital and rover imaging of nearby outcrops. Information from the context is especially useful to infer the possible action of past H2O. Separation of the ice and liquid water effects will be supported by cation abundance and sedimentary context. Shape of grains also helps here, and composition of transported grains points to the weathering potential of the environment in general. The work on Mars during the drilling and sample analysis will provide brand new experience and knowledge for future missions.

Concepts: Oxygen, Water, Earth, Mars, Drill, Geology, Imaging, Mars Science Laboratory


In-situ water extraction is necessary for an extended human presence on Mars. This study looks at the water requirements of an expanding human colony on Mars and the general systems needed to supply that water from the martian atmosphere and regolith. The proposed combination of systems in order to supply the necessary water includes a system similar to Honeybee Robotics' Mobile In-Situ Water Extractor (MISWE) that uses convection, a system similar to MISWE but that directs microwave energy down a borehole, a greenhouse or hothouse type system, and a system similar to the Mars Atmospheric Resource Recovery System (MARRS). It is demonstrated that a large water extraction system that can take advantage of large deposits of water ice at site specific locations is necessary to keep up with the demands of a growing colony.

Concepts: Water, Ice, Mars, Heat, Atmosphere, Venus, Mars Exploration Rover, Mars Science Laboratory