Valles Marineris on Mars is 10 times longer and three times deeper than Earth's Grand Canyon.
- The HiRISE instrument aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured high-resolution images of Valles Marineris.
- Valles Marineris stretches roughly 2,500 miles across the Martian surface, and was likely formed by geologic faulting caused by volcanic activity.
- NASA's Perseverance rover is set to land on Mars in February 2021, where it will search for signs of ancient life.
East-facing slope in Tithonium Chasma
Credit: NASA/JPL/UArizona<p>Over the decades, scientists have proposed many explanations for the origin of Valles Marineris, including erosion by water and the withdrawal of subsurface magma.</p><p>But the most widely accepted theory is that the canyon was formed by<a href="https://marsed.asu.edu/mep/tectonics/canyons" target="_blank"> geologic faulting caused by volcanic activity</a> in the Tharsis region, a volcanic plateau near the Red Planet's equator. (The Tharsis region is home to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympus_Mons" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Olympus Mons</a>, one of the largest volcanoes in the solar system.)</p>
Credit: NASA<p>Launched in 2005, HiRISE is the most powerful camera sent to another planet. It's able to capture high-resolution images of objects the size of a kitchen table, in both visible and near-infrared wavelengths. Scientists use these images to study topography and mineral groups on the Martian surface, and to help select potential landing sites for future missions.</p> <p>In February 2021, NASA's Perseverance rover is set to land on Mars, where it will collect rock and soil samples, take high-resolution microscopic images of the surface and search for signs of ancient alien life. The rover will also carry the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, a small 4-pound drone designed to help scientists learn more about the feasibility of achieving flight on Mars, a planet with an atmosphere that's <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/6-things-to-know-about-nasas-ingenuity-mars-helicopter/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">99 percent less dense than Earth's</a>.</p>
What lies in store for humanity? Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku explains how different life will be for your ancestors—and maybe your future self, if the timing works out.
- Carl Sagan believed humanity needed to become a multi-planet species as an insurance policy against the next huge catastrophe on Earth. Now, Elon Musk is working to see that mission through, starting with a colony of a million humans on Mars. Where will our species go next?
- Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku looks decades into the future and makes three bold predictions about human space travel, the potential of 'brain net', and our coming victory over cancer.
- "[I]n the future, the word 'tumor' will disappear from the English language," says Kaku. "We will have years of warning that there is a colony of cancer cells growing in our body. And our descendants will wonder: How could we fear cancer so much?"
Boston Dynamics' notorious robot goes on an interplanetary mission.
- NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory announces the deployment of a robotic "dog" for Mars exploration.
- The robot is a modified Boston Dynamics cyberdog familiar to the internet from YouTube videos over the last few years.
- The bot will be autonomous and smart enough to explore Martian caves that may one day provide shelter for human visitors to the Red Planet.
Spot on<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b815068cbe73c30294078a6d0c63b277"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/wlkCQXHEgjA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>In a way, it's the abuse we've seen Spot suffer on YouTube that makes it such an ideal candidate for Mars missions. If Au-Spot falls over, it can right itself, a not insignificant capability when exploring alien terrain—it's one of the current rovers' most significant shortcomings. "Toppling does not mean mission failure," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/agu-mars-robot-dogs.html" target="_blank">noted the scientists</a> introducing the bot. "Using recovery algorithms, the robot can self-right from a multitude of falls."</p><p>The 70-pound Au-Spot is also capable of moving three times faster than existing rovers. </p><p>This means that Au-Spot will be ideal for exploring Martian caves, an area of great interest to those planning future manned missions to the planet. Satellite images of the red planet have revealed <a href="https://www.usgs.gov/center-news/caves-mars" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">over 1,000 potential cave openings</a> already. It may be possible on such journeys for humans to shelter in caves away from the planet's brutal dusts storms, extreme cold, and punishing UV radiation. These places, however, are not places into which current rovers can be sent.</p><p>On the other hand, Au-Spot's remarkable flexibility and smarts will allow Earth-bound scientists to see if the caves can really be of use to future astronauts. The bot pup can get down into such caves and then get itself back out. While there, it can produce 3D maps of the terrain thanks to onboard LIDAR. Built-in AI allows the bot to learn the terrain too, so it can avoid entrapment or damage from collisions with obstacles. It strategically deploys communications modules along the way to keep its command personnel appraised of what it's doing when it's beneath the surface.</p><p>Au-Spot can even intelligently choose between multiple pathways forward, making it a far more flexible tool than current rovers. Most things that rovers do are pre-programmed routines—improvisation requires communicating with a <a href="https://medium.com/predict/how-to-drive-a-mars-rover-6f0870b0c8e1" target="_blank">human controller</a> back on Earth some 22 minutes away as the signal flies.</p>
The rise of Au-Spot<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="93d8d7bf9c12aa82593aeecaf81d1dfa"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/VitjPLRdY8g?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Au-Spot is the child of a team of 60 scientists and engineers working together as <a href="https://costar.jpl.nasa.gov" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">CoSTAR</a>, or the Collaborative SubTerranean Autonomous Resilient Robots. They've customized a factory-fresh Spot, outfitting it with the <a href="https://arxiv.org/pdf/2010.09259.pdf" target="_blank">NeBula</a> (Networked Belief-aware Perceptual Autonomy) system that makes it autonomous enough to successfully navigate new environments, as shown in the DARPA Subterranean Robotics Challenge video above.</p><p>To get Au-Spot mission-ready, the CoSTAR team is putting it through its paces here on Earth. In addition to sending it up and down staircases and such, it's gone on field trips to Northern California's Tulelake lava tubes for some practice on Mars-like terrain and some cave exploration as well. </p><p>At the presentation, the CoSTAR scientists predicted, "These behaviors could one day enable revolutionary scientific missions to take place on the Martian surface and subsurface, thereby pushing the boundaries of NASA's capability in exploring traditionally inaccessible sites."</p>
Scientists at Washington University are patenting a new electrolyzer designed for frigid Martian water.
- Mars explorers will need more oxygen and hydrogen than they can carry to the Red Planet.
- Martian water may be able to provide these elements, but it is extremely salty water.
- The new method can pull oxygen and hydrogen for breathing and fuel from Martian brine.
The WashU electrolyzer<iframe src='https://mars.nasa.gov/layout/embed/model/?s=6' width='800' height='450' scrolling='no' frameborder='0' allowfullscreen></iframe><p>The WashU electrolyzer—it has no snappy acronym yet—will not be the first device capable of extracting oxygen from Martian water. That honor goes to the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or <a href="https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/spacecraft/instruments/moxie/" target="_blank">MOXIE</a>, which is en route to Mars onboard NASA's <a href="https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/" target="_blank">Perseverance</a> rover. The rover was launched on July 30, 2020. It will arrive on February 18, 2021, and will perform high-temperature <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electrolysis_of_water" target="_blank">electrolysis</a> to extract pure oxygen, but no hydrogen.</p><p>In addition to being able to capture hydrogen, the WashU system can even do a better job with oxygen than MOXIE can, extracting 25 times as much from the same amount of water.</p><p>The new system has no problem with Mars' magnesium perchlorate-laced water. On the contrary, the researchers say it ultimately makes their system work better since such high concentrations of salt keep water from freezing on such a cold a planet by lowering the liquid's freezing temperature to -60 °C. He adds it may "also improve the performance of the electrolyzer system by lowering the electrical resistance."</p><p>Cold itself is no issue for the WashU system. It's been tested in a sub-zero (-33 ⁰F, or -36 ⁰C) environment that simulates Mars'.</p><p>"Our novel brine electrolyzer incorporates a lead <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0926337318311299" target="_blank">ruthenate pyrochlore</a> <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anode" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">anode</a> developed by our team in conjunction with a platinum on carbon <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathode" target="_blank">cathode</a>," explains Ramani. He adds, "These carefully designed components coupled with the optimal use of traditional electrochemical engineering principles has yielded this high performance."</p>
Back home<p>"This technology is equally useful on Earth where it opens up the oceans as a viable oxygen and fuel source," Ramani notes. His colleagues forsee potential applications such as producing oxygen in deep-sea habitats with ample water available, such as underwater research facilities and submarines.</p><p>The study's joint first author Pralay Gayen says that "having demonstrated these electrolyzers under demanding Martian conditions, we intend to also deploy them under much milder conditions on Earth to utilize brackish or salt water feeds to produce hydrogen and oxygen, for example, through seawater electrolysis."</p>
Zircons in a Martian meteorite widens the possible timeframe for life on Mars.
- A meteorite from Mars unexpectedly contains zircons that reveal the planets history.
- The rock likely comes from one of the solar system's tallest volcanoes.
- Analyzing the zirconium required smashing some very expensive rock.
Zirconian time capsules<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5NDYyNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NDU1NzI1OH0.URoz_gzrLswB109_j2MJha-A5a_S0wx2n75HlYZ2esk/img.jpg?width=980" id="61509" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c04d2caf50da8a0efdf061be4ca49bf6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="581" data-height="600" />
Earth zircon in gem form atop calcite
Credit: Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com/Wikimedia<p>"We were quite surprised and excited when we found so many zircons in this Martian meteorite," says Bizzarro. "Zircon are incredible durable crystals that can be dated and preserve information that tell us about their origins." Zircons are a rarity on Mars' surface — which resembles the crust beneath Earth's ocean floors — and so scientists have not been expecting to find much of the mineral.</p><p>What makes this so intriguing, Bizzarro explains to the <a href="https://dg.dk/en/mars-meteorite-black-beauty-expands-time-frame-for-potential-life-on-the-red-planet/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Danish National Research Foundation</u></a>, is that zircon "functions as a small time capsule because it obtains and saves information about the environment as well as when it was created. In this case a time capsule with hafnium, which comes from Mars' early crust, which existed around 100 million years before the oldest zircon in Black Beauty was created. Thus, Mars got an early start in comparison with Earth, whose solid crust was created much later."</p>
Breaking Black Beauty<p>Big Think readers may recall that the meteorite — known as "Black Beauty," though its official name is "Northwest Africa 7533" — cost the university $500,000 dollars for 50 grams of its 319.8-gram volume. As such, deciding to perform any sort of analysis that requires damaging the precious rock is not a decision taken lightly, as when, say, zircons are found in the stone.</p><p>"One of the big challenges," <a href="https://snm.ku.dk/english/news/all_news/2018/2018.6/the-meteorite-black-beauty-expands-the-window-for-when-life-might-have-existed-on-mars/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>says</u></a> Bizzarro, "has been that the zircons in Black Beauty are extremely small. This called for a courageous strategy: We crushed our precious meteorite. Or to be precise: We crushed 5 grams."</p><p>The decision paid off, says Bizzarro: "Today, I'm glad we chose that strategy. It released seven zircons, one of which is the oldest known zircon from Mars. And from the zircons and their content of hafnium, we can now conclude that the crystallization of the surface of Mars went extremely fast: already 20 million years after the formation of the solar system, Mars had a solid crust that could potentially could house oceans and perhaps also life."</p><p>Eventually, the team would crush 15 grams of Black Beauty, extracting 60 zircons.</p>
Old and young zircons<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5NDYzNS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjI5MDg3OX0.AJwFBV9m2ygMbq-78hXqwUy359wi_V-VJzV6iHXZ9mk/img.jpg?width=980" id="2feeb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cdb506ceff0db1132127e2c5aac1ff6a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="670" data-height="407" />
The oldest Martian zircon found so far
Credit: Martin Bizzarro/University of Copenhagen<p>"Zircon is a very solid mineral that is ideal for making such an absolute dating of time. In this regard, zircon can be used as a portal to pinpoint a time frame for the history of crust formation on Mars." Dating of Black Beauty's zircons shed new light on the planet's history. Most of the minerals were dated back to roughly 4.5 billion years ago, the earliest days of the planet.</p><p>Unexpectedly, though, some of the zircons were more recently formed, a period from about 1,500 million years ago to 300 million years. "These young ages were a great surprise," recalls Bizzarro.</p><p>That finding may have to do with where the rock came from. "The Black Beauty meteorite is believed to come from the southern hemisphere of Mars, which does not have any young volcanic terrains. The only possible source for these young zircons is the Tharsis volcanic province located in the northern hemisphere of the planet, which contains large volcanoes that were recently active," Martin Bizzarro adds.</p><p>That province, known as the Tharsis bulge, is a huge volcanic area that's got the largest volcanoes, up to 21 kilometers (13 miles) high, yet seen anywhere in the solar system. It's believed that since Mars lacks plate tectonics, volcanoes gather in a single area, beneath which a massive reservoir of magma is likely located.</p><p>First author of the study is Mafalda Costa , who says, "Having samples of the deep interior of Mars is key. This means that we can now use these zircons to probe the origin of the volatile elements on Mars, including its water, and see how it compares with Earth and other planets in the Solar System."</p><p>The most important element the zircons contain for the purpose of looking into Mars history is hafnium. Bizzarro explains that hafnium "retains a memory of where the zircon formed. We found that the hafnium isotope composition of the young zircons is unlike any of the known Martian meteorites, which indicates that the young zircons come from a primitive reservoir that we did not know existed in the interior of Mars."</p>