Maps and Marathons on Mars
This month has marked some amazing achievements for missions at Mars and scientists working with the data that robotic explorers continue to send back from the red planet.
A Clear View of Martian Geology
Earlier this month, scientists from the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) released a new geologic map of Mars’ ancient highlands. In a press release from PSI, Senior Scientist David A. Crown commented on how the map can be used to show the ways in which water has shaped the surface of this region of Mars:
“This map depicts the complicated sequence of geologic processes that have served to modify ancient, rugged highland terrains surrounding the Hellas impact basin and shows evidence for the persistent effects of water and ice in degrading the martian surface,” Crown said.
The canyon systems of Waikato Vallis and Reull Vallis are of particular note. These systems are unlike any on Earth, and are thought to have formed when the ground collapsed as subsurface water was released to the surface.
The Geologic Map of MTM -30247, -35247 and -40247 Quadrangles, Reull Vallis Region of Mars, was published as a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Scientific Investigations Map. The map is available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/sim/3245/.
In other martian cartography news, scientists have released a second map of Mars that was created by using more then 20,000 nighttime temperature images from the heat-sensing THEMIS instrument on NASA’s Mars Odyssey Orbiter. It is the most detailed global map of Mars yet created.
In a press release from Arizona State University (ASU), THEMIS principal investigator and ASU professor Philip Christensen explained, “This map provides data not previously available, and it will enable regional and global studies of surface properties. I’m eager to use it to discover new insights into the recent surface history of Mars.”
Nighttime temperature data allows scientists to determine the ‘thermal inertia’ for football-field-sized swaths of Mars. Thermal inertia represents the speed at which areas heat up and cool down. Different features have different thermal inertia, and this helps scientists distinguish between things like bedrock and fine-grained sand. Spotting the details of surface features in the new map will help mission planners select landing sites for future Mars missions.
The global map of Mars can be viewed at: http://jmars.asu.edu/maps/?layer=thm_ti_100m_8bit&z=6&greenlabels
A version of the map that is optimized for research scientists is also available at: http://astrogeology.usgs.gov/maps/mars-themis-derived-global-thermal-inertia-mosaic
Record Breaking Roving
NASA’s Opportunity rover has made headlines around the world by breaking the record for travel across the surface of a celestial body beyond Earth. Opportunity has traversed over 25 miles (40 kilometers) on Mars, surpassing the previous off-world record held by the Soviet Lunokhod 2 rover.
Lunokhod 2 landed on the Moon in 1973 and, according to images of the rover’s tracks from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), drove a total of 24.2 miles.
“The Lunokhod missions still stand as two signature accomplishments of what I think of as the first golden age of planetary exploration, the 1960s and ’70s,” said Steve Squyres of Cornell University and principal investigator for NASA’s Mars Exploration rovers in a NASA JPL press release. “We’re in a second golden age now, and what we’ve tried to do on Mars with Spirit and Opportunity has been very much inspired by the accomplishments of the Lunokhod team on the Moon so many years ago. It has been a real honor to follow in their historical wheel tracks.”
Opportunity is now cruising along the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Outcrops on the crater rim are providing a view into ancient environments on Mars that had less acidic water than previously studied sites. The observations that Opportunity is making provide new insight into the potential for life on ancient Mars.
As Opportunity continues to roll, the rover is approaching the 26.2-mile-mark of a martian marathon. To celebrate, it’s next scientific destination has been dubbed ‘Marathon Valley.’ At this site, images from Mars orbiters indicate that clay minerals are exposed at the surface.
“Opportunity has driven farther than any other wheeled vehicle on another world,” said Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas in the press release from NASA JPL. “This is so remarkable considering Opportunity was intended to drive about one kilometer and was never designed for distance. But what is really important is not how many miles the rover has racked up, but how much exploration and discovery we have accomplished over that distance.”
Curiosity Beyond the Safe Zone
Although it hasn’t driven as far as Opportunity, NASA’s Curiosity rover has also made important progress on its journey across Mars. Curiosity recently managed to roll outside of the region that was mapped as ‘safe terrain’ for the rover’s landing in 2012. So far, Curiosity has traveled a total distance of just over 5 miles (8 kilomters).
As Curiosity explores this new area of Mars, the rover will send home additional data about the past environment of Gale Crater. This information will help scientists understand if conditions suitable for life were once present on Mars.
For the Classroom
Check out this excellent infographic from NASA, which shows the recorded ‘Out-of-this-world’ driving distances for past missions as of May 16, 2013. Now it’s time to update the graphic with the Opportunity rover’s Lunokhod-surpassing acheivement! How far do you think Curiosity will make it during its mission on Mars?