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Seeking answers to the mysteries of Mars – University of Alberta

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Perseverance, a NASA rover, is collecting rocks on the surface of Mars, more than 200 million kilometres away. Though they could eventually become the most valuable rocks on Earth, the rover has limited space for these samples. That’s where “return sample scientists” such as Chris Herd come in, lending their expertise to determine which samples could answer the greatest number of questions about Mars and further our understanding of the planet, including whether it has ever harboured life.

The highest quality samples are sealed and stored airtight on Perseverance, to await study on Earth in the future. A backup of each sample remains in a depot on Mars.

“The rovers have to be cleaned to a certain standard, and the sample tubes we send are probably the cleanest things that humanity has ever sent anywhere,” says Herd, a professor in the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences and curator of the University of Alberta’s Meteorite Collection. This is to ensure that no contaminants or signatures of life from Earth make their way into the Martian samples.

Each tube contains a sample of about 10 grams, and the rover has capacity to fill, seal and store 38 sample tubes; the follow on mission can bring only 30 back. So, return sample scientists need to be selective about what samples they capture. Once the tubes return to Earth, only a certain percentage of each may be used for analysis — the remainder must be curated and archived.

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Modern technology and innovative tools mean the limited sample materials available shouldn’t be an issue. “We make the most of the least amount of material. We have an incredible array of instrumentation that allows us to do that,” Herd says. “There are ways we can analyze a sample that give us unprecedented detail about when the rock formed, how it was modified, whether there’s any organic matter that could be evidence of life. There’s a host of things we can tell from tiny amounts.”

Selecting information-rich samples

Return sample scientists take various priorities into account when determining which samples to preserve in the tubes. They also consider the practicalities of what’s available to sample once the rover reaches a particular site. The larger mission is broken down into smaller campaigns, each campaign targeting three to five samples.

Within three weeks of each sampling event, return sample scientists must complete a report that details “everything from the map view to the outcrop to the details of what we’ve learned about the rock as we sample it,” Herd explains.

While researchers on Earth already have samples of at least 175 Martian meteorites, they tend to provide a snapshot of a younger Mars, having been ejected from the planet after violent impacts early in its existence. Consequently they don’t offer a full picture of what has been happening on the planet since.

But Perseverance has already gathered igneous and sedimentary samples from sites in Jezero Crater. Researchers will compare the igneous samples obtained by the rover to some of those existing meteorite samples we already have on Earth, deepening our understanding of Mars. The sedimentary samples will fill a gap in our knowledge about Martian geology, as we currently have no sedimentary rocks from there.

“Those are even more interesting from an ancient biology perspective,” Herd says. “That’s the reason we went to this landing site, because the rocks were laid down by liquid water some three and a half billion years ago and could preserve evidence of ancient life.”

Tools aboard Perseverance record the location of samples, provide insights into what the rocks are made of, and gather information about the environment each one is from, giving researchers invaluable context. Once sampling from Jezero Crater is complete, Herd estimates the team will have about half the available sample capacity remaining, to be used as the rover drives up and out of the crater.

“Each of those 15 or 16 samples could be unique and could represent a bigger range of ages and rock types than we’ve seen inside the crater.”

The return to Earth

It won’t be easy to bring the samples back to Earth. The task needs a lander (a spacecraft that can land on and leave a planetary surface), a rocket, and the ability to rendezvous with an orbiting interplanetary spacecraft. And on Earth, researchers need to be ready to handle the samples.

“There’s a lot that we have to do to make sure we don’t contaminate the samples with signatures of life from Earth and misinterpret that signature as life on Mars,” Herd says. He says it’s hard to imagine retrofitting an existing facility to house and study the samples appropriately and safely. Instead, he says a tailor-made facility could protect the samples from Earthly contaminants, while ensuring that our environment is safe from potentially harmful Martian contaminants. “We need to get this right,” he says, “because this is answering a huge question.”

“There’s still a non-zero probability that there’s extant life that has somehow managed to survive on Mars,” Herd adds. This slim chance is due to the history of Mars, and it “being warmer and wetter in the past and having that potential for microbial life.”

While there are still several years to wait until researchers can get their hands on the samples for analysis, the process is just as satisfying as the eventual payoff may be, according to Herd.

“It’s absolutely phenomenal for me to be involved in such a huge mission, where we get to explore and get information about the rocks and the geology while at the same time sampling and looking forward to bringing those samples back,” Herd says. “That’s what sets this mission apart.”

 

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How to watch the Axiom-2 mission depart from the ISS on Tuesday – Digital Trends

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This Tuesday, the crew of the second-ever all-private mission to the International Space Station will be returning to Earth. The Axiom 2 or Ax-2 mission launched last week and saw private astronauts Peggy Whitson, John Shoffner, Ali Alqarni, and Rayyanah Barnawi traveling to the ISS on a SpaceX Crew Dragon launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Axiom Mission 2 Undocks From the International Space Station (Official NASA Broadcast)

Now, the crew of four will be traveling back to Earth in the same Crew Dragon, and NASA will be livestreaming the departure of the spacecraft from the station. A separate stream will also be available showing the Crew Dragon splashing down off the coast of Florida. We’ve got the details on how to watch both below.

How to watch the mission departure

The Axiom Mission-2 and Expedition 69 crew members pose for a portrait together during dinner time aboard the International Space Station. NASA

Coverage of the departure of the Crew Dragon from the ISS will begin at 9 a.m. ET (6 a.m. PT) on Tuesday, May 30. NASA will show a short introduction before the closing of the hatch of the station’s Harmony module at 9:10 a.m. ET (6:10 a.m. PT). There will then be a short break in coverage, which will resume at 10:45 a.m. ET (7:45 a.m. PT) to show the undocking of the Dragon at 11:05 a.m. ET (8:05 a.m. PT), with coverage ending 30 minutes after undocking.

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You can watch the livestream of the hatch closing and the undocking on NASA’s YouTube channel, or by using the video embedded near the top of this page.

The crew will then travel back to Earth throughout Tuesday and into Wednesday, May 31. When the Crew Dragon is approaching Earth for splashdown, you’ll be able to tune into a livestream from Axiom Space. That will be available on Axiom’s website, but the company has not yet confirmed the exact time that coverage is expected to begin on Wednesday. You can find the latest updates on Axiom Twitter.

What to expect from the mission departure

The Ax-2 crew will have spent 10 days in space before heading home, and they will be bringing around 300 pounds of cargo back with them. The mission is notable for including the first two astronauts from Saudi Arabia, Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, as well as famous American astronaut Peggy Whitson who has spent more days in space than any other American or any other woman.

Axiom Space launched its first private mission to the ISS in April last year, with a third mission planned for November this year and a fourth planned for 2024.

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NASA's New Horizons Spacecraft Captures ''Heart-Shaped'' Glacier On Pluto's Surface – NDTV

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Pluto was once considered the ninth planet in the solar system

Space agency NASA routinely captures stunning images of our universe, leaving space lovers mesmerized. On Sunday, NASA shared a stunning image on Instagram taken by its New Horizons spacecraft showing a heart-shaped glacier on Pluto’s surface. The heart-shaped region is known unofficially as Tombaugh Regio and is made of nitrogen and methane.

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The image was captioned as ”Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Our New Horizons spacecraft captured this heart-shaped glacier. It lies on Pluto’s surface, which also features mountains, cliffs, valleys, craters, and plains, thought to be made of methane and nitrogen ice ”

See the image here:

It described the image as ”Pluto’s surface is marked with cracks and craters in shades of brown. The partially visible heart appears in the lower right of the small world, which is surrounded by black space.⁣”

New Horizons launched in January 2006 and reached Pluto in July 2015, flying within 7,800 miles of its surface, and becoming the first probe to fly by Pluto and its moons. The far-traveling spacecraft also visited a distant Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule (2014 MU69) in January 2019. 

Instagram users loved the picture and shared a variety of comments.  One user wrote, ”Wouahh what a great capture, thanks to New Horizon spacecraft.” Another commented, ”For me, Pluto will always be a planet.” 

A third said, ”Why is Pluto, not a plane? it literally has a heart!” A fourth added, ”Being afar doesn’t mean you aren’t part of the family.”

Pluto was once considered the ninth planet in the solar system, however, it was demoted in 2006 and reclassified as a dwarf planet. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) downgraded the status of Pluto to that of a dwarf planet because it did not meet the three criteria the IAU uses to define a full-sized planet.

Pluto is slightly over 1,400 miles (2250 km) wide or about half the breadth of the United States or two-thirds the width of the Moon. With its average temperature of -387F (-232C) – Pluto’s surface is coated in ice made of water, methane, and nitrogen and is believed to have a rocky core and possibly a deep ocean. 

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This Week @NASA: Private Astronaut Mission, Autonomous Snake-Like Robot Explorer, TROPICS Launch – SciTechDaily

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Illustration of the Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor (EELS) concept. Credit NASA/JPL-CalTech

The second all-private astronaut mission to the space station …

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Completing the set of tiny severe weather trackers …

And a robotic explorer – with a twist …

A few of the stories to tell you about – This Week at <span class="glossaryLink" aria-describedby="tt" data-cmtooltip="

NASA
Established in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency of the United States Federal Government that succeeded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). It is responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. Its vision is &quot;To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity.&quot; Its core values are &quot;safety, integrity, teamwork, excellence, and inclusion.&quot; NASA conducts research, develops technology and launches missions to explore and study Earth, the solar system, and the universe beyond. It also works to advance the state of knowledge in a wide range of scientific fields, including Earth and space science, planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics, and it collaborates with private companies and international partners to achieve its goals.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”["attribute":"data-cmtooltip", "format":"html"]”>NASA!

[embedded content]

Second Private Astronaut Mission to the Space Station

On May 21, a <span class="glossaryLink" aria-describedby="tt" data-cmtooltip="

SpaceX
Commonly known as SpaceX, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is a private American aerospace manufacturer and space transport services company that was founded by Elon Musk in 2002. Headquartered in Hawthorne, California, the company designs, manufactures, and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. SpaceX's ultimate goal is to reduce space transportation costs and enable the colonization of Mars.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”["attribute":"data-cmtooltip", "format":"html"]”>SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Axiom Mission 2, the second all private astronaut mission to the International Space Station.

The four-person crew, commanded by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, is scheduled to spend several days conducting research, outreach, and commercial activities on the space station.

Rocket Lab TROPICS CubeSats

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 1 at Māhia, New Zealand at 11:46 a.m, on May 25, 2023, carrying two TROPICS CubeSats for NASA. Credit: Rocket Lab

Final Pair of Storm-Observing CubeSats Launched

The final two CubeSats for NASA’s TROPICS mission launched from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand on May 26. The small satellites will join two other identical spacecraft that launched to orbit earlier this month.

All four will fly, as a constellation, in a unique low Earth orbit that will allow them to observe tropical cyclones, including hurricanes and typhoons, more often than what is possible with
current weather satellites.

Snake Robot EELS at Ski Resort

Team members from JPL test a snake robot called EELS at a ski resort in the Southern California mountains in February. Designed to sense its environment, calculate risk, travel, and gather data without real-time human input, EELS could eventually explore destinations throughout the solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Autonomous Snake-Like Robotic Explorer

A team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is creating and testing a snake-like robot called EELS, short for Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor. The self-propelled, autonomous robot is
being developed to go where other robots can’t go.

Although it was inspired by a desire to look for signs of life in the sub-surface ocean on <span class="glossaryLink" aria-describedby="tt" data-cmtooltip="

Saturn
Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun and has the second-largest mass in the Solar System. It has a much lower density than Earth but has a much greater volume. Saturn's name comes from the Roman god of wealth and agriculture.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”["attribute":"data-cmtooltip", "format":"html"]”>Saturn’s icy moon, Enceladus, EELS is not currently part of any NASA mission.

Hot Fire RS-25 Certification Engine

NASA completed a crucial hot fire test of the RS-25 engine, part of a 12-test certification series for future Artemis missions. This achievement brings NASA one step closer to landing the first woman and person of color on the Moon, as well as establishing a long-term lunar presence. Credit: NASA / Stennis

Artemis Rocket Engine Test Series Continues

On May 23, NASA’s Stennis Space Center conducted a hot fire test of an RS-25 rocket engine. It was the eighth hot fire of the current 12-test series to certify production of new RS-25s.

Four of the engines will help power NASA’s Space Launch System rocket on future Artemis missions to the Moon.

That’s what’s up this week @NASA.

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