KCRW ‘To The Point’ Interview: Cassini’s Grand Finale

Artist’s impression of Cassini passing through the gap between Saturn and the planet’s rings (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

After all the excitement of last night’s Cassini mission checking in and transmitting data to NASA’s Deep Space Network, I joined Warren Olney on his NPR-syndicated show “To The Point” this morning to chat about the mission and why the “Grand Finale” is an awesome, yet bittersweet, part of Saturn exploration. Listen to the 10 minute segment here. It was great as always to chat with Warren, thanks for having me on the show!


Cassini Sees Earth and Moon Through Saturn’s Rings

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

NASA’s Cassini mission sure has a knack for putting stuff into perspective — and this most recent view from Saturn orbit is no different. That dot in the center of the image isn’t a dud pixel in Cassini’s camera CCD. That’s us. All of us. Everyone.

To quote Carl Sagan:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…”

Sagan wrote that passage in his book “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space” when reflecting on the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image that was beamed back to Earth by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990. That’s when the mission returned a profound view of our planet from a distance of 3.7 billion miles (or 40.5AU) as it was traveling through the solar system’s hinterlands, on its way to interstellar space. Since then, there’s been many versions of pale blue dots snapped by the armada of robotic missions around the solar system and Cassini has looked back at us on several occasions from its orbital perch.

Now, just before Cassini begins the final leg of its Saturnian odyssey, it has again spied Earth through a gap between the gas giant’s A ring (top) and F ring (bottom). In a cropped and enhanced version, our moon is even visible! The image is composed of many observations captured on April 12, stitched together as a mosaic when Saturn was 870 million miles (roughly 9.4AU) from Earth.

On April 20 (Friday), Cassini will make its final flyby of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, using its gravity to fling itself through Saturn’s ring plane (on April 26) between the innermost ring and the planet’s cloudy upper atmosphere, revealing a view that we’ve never before seen. For 22 orbits, Cassini will dive into this uncharted region, possibly revealing new things about Saturn’s evolution, what material its rings contain and incredibly intimate views of its atmosphere.

This daring maneuver will signal the beginning of the end for this historic mission, however. On Sept. 15, Cassini will be intentionally steered into Saturn’s atmosphere to burn up as a human-made meteor. It is low in fuel, so NASA wants to avoid the spacecraft from crashing into and contaminating one of Saturn’s potentially life-giving moons — Titan or Enceladus.

So, appreciate every image that is captured by Cassini over the coming weeks. The pictures will be like nothing we’ve seen before of the ringed gas giant, creating a very bittersweet phase of the spacecraft’s profound mission to Saturn.

NASA Uses Gravitational Wave Detector Prototype to Detect ‘Space Mosquito’ Splats

Artist impression of ESA LISA Pathfinder in interplanetary space (ESA)

Imagine speeding down the highway and plowing into an unfortunate swarm of mosquitoes. Now imagine that you had the ability to precisely measure the mass of each mosquito, the speed at which it was traveling and the direction it was going before it exploded over your windscreen.

Granted, the technology to accomplish that probably isn’t feasible in such an uncontrolled environment. Factors such as vibration from the car’s motor and tires on the road, plus wind and air turbulence will completely drown out any “splat” from a minuscule insect’s body, rendering any signal difficult to decipher from noise.

But move your hypothetical “car and mosquitoes” into space — as silly as that may sound — and things become a lot less noisy. And now NASA is measuring its own special kind of “mosquito splat” signal by using a rather unlikely space experiment.

The European LISA Pathfinder spacecraft is a proof of concept mission that’s currently in space, orbiting a region of gravitational stability between the Earth and the sun — called the L1 point located a million miles away. The spacecraft was launched there in late 2015 to carry out precision tests of instruments that will eventually be used in the space-based gravitational wave detector eLISA. Inside the payload is a miniaturized laser interferometer system that measures the distance between two test masses.

When launched in 2034, eLISA (which stands for Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) will see three spacecraft, orbiting the sun at the L1 point, firing ultra-precise lasers at one another as part of a space-based gravitational wave detector. Now we actually know gravitational waves exist — after the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (or LIGO) detected the space-time ripples created after the collisions of black holes — excitement is building that we might, one day, be able to measure other phenomena, such as the ultra-low frequency gravitational waves that were created during the Big Bang.

But the only way we can do this is to send stunningly precise interferometers into space, away from our vibration-filled atmosphere to stand a chance of detecting some of the faintest space-time rumbles in our cosmos that would otherwise be drowned out by a passing delivery truck or windy day. And LISA Pathfinder is currently out there, testing a tiny laser interferometer in a near-perfect gravitational free-fall, making the slightest of slight adjustments with its “ultra-precise micro-propulsion system.”

Although LISA Pathfinder is a test (albeit a history-making test of incredible engineering ingenuity), NASA thinks that it could actually be used as an observatory in its own right; not for hunting gravitational waves, but for detecting comet dust.

Like our mosquito-windscreen analogy, spacecraft get hit by tiny particles all the time, and LISA Pathfinder is no exception. These micrometeoroides come from eons of evaporating comets and colliding asteroids. Although measuring less than the size of a grain of sand, these tiny particles zip around interplanetary space at astonishing speeds — well over 22,000 miles per hour (that’s 22 times faster than a hyper-velocity rifle round) — and can damage spacecraft over time, slowly eroding unprotected hardware.

Therefore, it would be nice if we could create a map of regions in the solar system that contain lots of these particles so we can be better prepared to face the risk. Although models of solar system evolution help and we can estimate the distribution of these particles, they’ve only ever been measured near Earth, so it would be advantageous to find the “ground truth” and measure them directly from another, unexplored region of the solar system.

This is where LISA Pathfinder comes in.

As the spacecraft gets hit by these minuscule particles, although they are tiny, their high speed ensures they pack a measurable punch. As scientists want the test weights inside the spacecraft to be completely shielded from any external force — whether that’s radiation pressure from the sun or marauding micro-space rocks — the spacecraft has been engineered to be an ultra-precise container that carefully adjusts its orientation an exact amount to directly counter these external forces (hence the “ultra-precise micro-propulsion system”).

When LISA Pathfinder is struck by space dust, it compensates with its ultra-precise micro-thrusters (ESA/NASA)

This bit is pretty awesome: Whenever these tiny space particles hit the spacecraft, it compensates for the impact and that compensation is registered as a “blip” in the telemetry being beamed back to Earth. After careful analysis of the various data streams, researchers are learning a surprising amount of information about these micrometeoroides — such as their mass, speed, direction of travel and even their possible origin! — all for the ultimate goal of getting to know the tiny pieces of junk that whiz around space.

“Every time microscopic dust strikes LISA Pathfinder, its thrusters null out the small amount of momentum transferred to the spacecraft,” said Diego Janches, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “We can turn that around and use the thruster firings to learn more about the impacting particles. One team’s noise becomes another team’s data.”

So, it turns out that you can precisely measure a mosquito impact on your car’s windshield — so long as that “mosquito” is a particle of space dust and your “car” is a spacecraft a million miles from Earth.

NASA put together a great video, watch it:

Aside: So it turned out that I inadvertently tested the “car-mosquito” hypothesis when driving home from Las Vegas — though some of these were a lot bigger than mosquitoes…

Enceladus Could Be a Cosmic Shaker for the Cocktail of Life

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

A little frozen Saturn moon, with a diameter that could easily fit inside the state of New Mexico, holds some big promises for the possibility of finding basic alien life in our solar system.

Enceladus is often overshadowed by its larger distant cousin, Europa, which orbits Jupiter and the Jovian moon’s awesome potential has been widely publicized. But Enceladus has one thing Europa doesn’t — it has been visited very closely by a robotic space probe that could take a sniff of its famous water vapor plumes. And this week, there was much excitement about another facet of the moon’s complex subsurface chemistry, thanks to analysis carried out on data gathered by NASA’s Cassini mission.

But before we get into why this new discovery is so cool, let’s take a very quick look at the other signs of Enceladus’ life-giving potential.

The Cocktail Of Life

Being living, breathing creatures on a habitable planet, it may not come as a surprise to you that for biology to evolve, it needs a few basic ingredients. Liquid water is a definite requirement, of course. Heat also helps. Throw some organic chemistry into the mix and we have a party.

Enceladus, however, is a tiny icy globe, there’s no sign of liquid water on its surface. But when Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004, Enceladus revealed some of its best-kept secrets. Firstly, it may be a smooth ice ball, but the moon has a large quantity of water under its surface. This water even escapes as geysers, through fissures in its icy crust, producing stunning plumes that eject material hundreds of miles high and into Saturn’s rings.

Before Cassini was launched to Saturn, we had little clue about Enceladus’ watery potential — though this finding explained why Enceladus appeared so bright and how it contributes material to Saturn’s E-ring. Fortunately, the spacecraft has an instrument on board — a mass spectrometer — that could be used to “taste” the watery goodness of these plumes. During its Enceladus flybys, Cassini was able to fly through the plumes, revealing a surprisingly rich chemical cocktail — including a high concentration of organic chemistry.

It’s as if all the building blocks of life have been thrown into a small icy cocoon, shaken up and gently heated from within.

Now, another fascinating discovery has been made. Further analysis of Cassini data from its last 2015 plume fly-through, molecular hydrogen has been detected and planetary scientists are more than a little excited to add this to Enceladus’ habitable repertoire.

Deep In The Enceladus Abyss

“Hydrogen is a source of chemical energy for microbes that live in the Earth’s oceans near hydrothermal vents,” said Hunter Waite, principal investigator of Cassini’s Ion Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), in a statement on Thursday (April 13). “Our results indicate the same chemical energy source is present in the ocean of Enceladus.”

This hydrogen could be a byproduct of chemical reactions going on between the moon’s rocky core and the warm water surrounding it. And there’s a lot of hydrogen gas being vented, probably enough to sustain basic lifeforms deep in the Enceladus abyss.

“The amount of molecular hydrogen we detected is high enough to support microbes similar to those that live near hydrothermal vents on Earth,” added co-author Christopher Glein, who specializes in extraterrestrial chemical oceanography, also of SwRI. “If similar organisms are present in Enceladus, they could ‘burn’ the hydrogen to obtain energy for chemosynthesis, which could conceivably serve as a foundation for a larger ecosystem.”

Yes, we’re talking alien microbes. (Also, “extraterrestrial chemical oceanography” — oceans on other worlds! — is one hell of a mind-blowing topic to specialize in, just sayin’.) And did he mention “larger ecosystem”? Why yes! Yes he did.

So, in short, we know Enceladus has a liquid water ocean. We know that it has an internal heat source (hence the liquid oceans). We also know there’s organic chemistry. And now there’s solid hints that there’s water-rock interactions going on that terrestrial microbes living at Earth’s ocean vents like to munch on. If that’s not a huge, blinking neon sign pointing at Enceladus, saying: “We need a surface mission here!” I don’t know what is.

Although the researchers are keen to emphasize that alien microbes have not been found (because Cassini isn’t capable of looking for life), the universe has given us a moon-sized Petri dish where an “ecosystem” may have taken hold. All the ingredients are there, wouldn’t it be cool to find out if Enceladus could be another place in the solar system where life may be hanging out?

There was also some great news about Europa’s habitable potential this week, but you can go here for that piece of cosmic awesomeness.

Want to know more about Cassini’s final months at Saturn, check out my recent Space.com article on the commencement of the veteran mission’s Grand Finale.

Vast Magnetic Canyon Opens up on the Sun — Choppy Space Weather Incoming?

A “live” view of our sun’s corona (NASA/SDO)

As the sun dips into extremely low levels of activity before the current cycle’s “solar minimum”, a vast coronal hole has opened up in the sun’s lower atmosphere, sending a stream of fast-moving plasma our way.

To the untrained eye, this observation of the lower corona — the sun’s magnetically-dominated multi-million degree atmosphere — may look pretty dramatic. Like a vast rip in the sun’s disk, this particular coronal hole represents a huge region of “open” magnetic field lines reaching out into the solar system. Like a firehose, this open region is blasting the so-called fast solar wind in our direction and it could mean some choppy space weather is on the way.

As imaged by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory today, this particular observation is sensitive to extreme ultraviolet radiation at a wavelength of 193 (19.3 nanometers) — the typical emission from a very ionized form of iron (iron-12, or FeXII) at a temperature of a million degrees Kelvin. In coronal holes, it looks as if there is little to no plasma at that temperature present, but that’s not the case; it’s just very rarefied as it’s traveling at tremendous speed and escaping into space.

The brighter regions represent closed field lines, basically big loops of magnetism that traps plasma at high density. Regions of close fieldlines cover the sun and coronal loops are known to contain hot plasma being energized by coronal heating processes.

When a coronal hole such as this rotates into view, we know that a stream of high-speed plasma is on the way and, in a few days, could have some interesting effects on Earth’s geomagnetic field. This same coronal hole made an appearance when it last rotated around the sun, generating some nice high-latitude auroras. Spaceweather.com predicts that the next stream will reach our planet on March 28th or 29th, potentially culminating in a “moderately strong” G2-class geomagnetic storm. The onset of geomagnetic storms can generate impressive auroral displays at high latitudes. Although not as dramatic as an Earth-directed coronal mass ejection or solar flare, the radiation environment in Earth orbit will no doubt increase.

The sun as seen right now by the SDO’s HMI instrument (NASA/SDO)

The sun is currently in a downward trend in activity and is expected to reach “solar minimum” by around 2019. As expected, sunspot numbers are decreasing steadily, meaning the internal magnetic dynamo of our nearest star is starting to ebb, reducing the likelihood of explosive events like flares and CMEs. This is all part of the natural 11-year cycle of our sun and, though activity is slowly ratcheting down its levels of activity, there’s still plenty of space weather action going on.

Cassini Says “Ciao!” to Pan, Saturn’s Ravioli Moon

Never before has a space probe come so close to the pint-sized moon embedded in Saturn’s rings — and when NASA’s Cassini buzzed Pan, the spacecraft revealed what a strange moon it really is.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This is Pan, a 22 mile-wide moon that scoots through Saturn’s rings, orbiting the gas giant once every 13.8 hours. And it’s weird.

Resembling a giant ravioli or some kind of “flying saucer” from a classic alien invasion sci-fi comic, Pan is known as a “shepherd moon” occupying the so-called Encke Gap inside Saturn’s A Ring. This gap is largely free of particles and it has become Pan’s job to hoover up any stray material — the moon’s slight gravity pulls particles onto its surface and scatters others back out into the ring system. This gravitational disturbance creates waves that ripple through the ring material, propagating for hundreds of miles.

On March 7, NASA’s Cassini mission came within 15,268 miles of Pan, revealing incredible detail in the moon’s strange surface. It’s thought that its characteristic equatorial ridge (a trait it shares with another Saturn moon Atlas) is caused by the gradual accumulation of ring material throughout the moon’s formation and with these new observations, scientists will be able to better understand how Pan came to be.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

As Cassini rapidly approaches the end of its mission, eventually orbiting through Saturn’s ring plane as a part of its “Grand Finale,” we can expect more of these striking views from orbit before the veteran probe is steered into Saturn’s atmosphere in September, bringing its historic mission to an end.

Doomsday, Whenever: Massive Asteroid Impacts Probably Happen at Random

We always seem to be “overdue” a devastating asteroid impact, but how can we be overdue if asteroids don’t have an impact schedule?

Don Davis/NASA

Humans are naturally tuned to seek out patterns in seemingly random events. It’s an evolutionary trait that has helped us become the smart Homo sapiens we are today.

This ability to spot patterns and predict cyclical events continues to dominate our everyday lives. For example, geologists chart seismic activity in hopes of seeing a tell-tail earthquake signal before the “big one” happens; farmers track seasonal cycles in an attempt to predict periods of drought; Wall Street traders use complex numerical models to warn of the next financial crisis (or, indeed, profit from the downturn). Also, astronomers try to find patterns in cosmic occurrences that could pose an existential threat.

We are, of course, talking asteroid impacts — cataclysmic events that have shaped all of the planets in our solar system. Although Earth’s atmosphere is very good at eroding away ancient impact craters, evidence for asteroid impacts in the geological history of our planet is very common. Frankly, it’s perfectly natural to be hit by large asteroids and comets; that’s how planets accrete rocky material, collect water and accumulate organic chemistry for life (on Earth, at least).

But should we get hit by a massive asteroid in the near future, it could be curtains for our civilization. So it sure would be handy if we could somehow use the geologic record of our planet, see how often we get punched, spot a cycle or some kind of pattern, predict then the next impact is likely to happen and — hopefully — plan for the next marauding space rock to make an appearance in our skies! (Whether we’ll be able to do anything about it is an entirely different matter.)

Although seeking out cycles in asteroid and comet strikes is a doomsayer’s favorite hobby, scientists have had a challenging time at pinning down any kind of pattern in historic asteroid impacts and, as a new study published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society dramatically concludes, there may be no pattern at all.

But what could drive periodic asteroid or comet impacts in the first place? One hypothesis claims that the solar system’s “wobble” through the galactic plane may destabilize comets in the Oort Cloud periodically, causing an uptick in massive planetary impacts. Also, the much hyped solar twin, Nemesis, could gravitationally jumble asteroids during its long orbit around the sun. But neither hypothesis stands up to scrutiny and the existence of an extremely dim solar partner is becoming increasingly unlikely.

Regardless, previous studies have suggested that extinction-level impacts (of the magnitude of the one that wiped out, or at least greatly contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs) occur roughly every 26 million years (the cause of which is open to debate), but researchers from ETH Zurich and Lund University in Sweden now refute this claim.

“We have determined … that asteroids don’t hit the Earth at periodic intervals,” Matthias Meier, of ETH Zurich’s Institute of Geochemistry and Petrology, said in a statement.

After studying precisely-dated impact craters around the world that were formed in the past 500 million years, Meier and Sanna Holm-Alwmark of Lund University dated some 22 craters with dates of impacts known to a precision of one percent.

Then, using a technique known as circular spectral analysis (CSA), they attempted to find the approximate-26 million year period in this set of craters. They found no such period.

Interestingly, Meier and Holm-Alwmark also found that some of the impact craters were of the same age, hinting at a common source. “Some of these craters could have been formed by the collision of an asteroid accompanied by a moon,” said Meier. “But in other cases, the impact sites are too far away from each other for this to be the explanation.”

One interesting example is the apparent close similarity in age of the famous 66 million-year-old, 110 mile-wide Chicxulub Crater in Mexico (that has been linked with the extinction of the dinosaurs) and the 15 mile-wide Boltysh Crater in the Ukraine. As pointed out by the researchers, although a definitive explanation for this coincidence isn’t immediately clear, the two impactors may have originated from a collision in the asteroid belt, sending fragments to Earth, hitting the planet within a very short period of one another.

And it’s these kinds of clustering impacts that the researchers have identified as being potential problems with previous statistical studies — they assumed each impact is distinct, when in fact, they happened at the same time, possibly skewing results and creating a pattern when, in fact, there wasn’t one.

“Our work has shown that just a few of these so-called impact clusters are enough to suggest a semblance of periodicity,” said Meier.

I have little doubt that these new findings will be disputed, spawning more studies pointing to other statistical techniques and a bigger impact crater data set, but it is interesting to think that, as far as extinction-level impact events go, there really may be no pattern to their occurrence.

We know that a doomsday asteroid is out there, and it will hit us, but it has a random impact date that is only known to our planet’s geological future.

Can We Call the Bright Spot in Ceres’ Occator Crater a Cryovolcano Yet?

Evidence is mounting around the cryovolcanic history of the solar system’s innermost dwarf planet — and its most recent eruptions may have happened within the last four million years.


Since NASA’s Dawn mission arrived at dwarf planet Ceres in 2015, we’ve been treated to some wonderfully detailed images of the small world’s pockmarked terrain. Understanding the underlying processes of what is believed to be an ice-filled celestial body, however, is taking some time to decipher. But with more observations comes more understanding and planetary scientists are getting close to realizing what lies beneath those craters and, possibly, unlocking the secrets behind a very icy and very alien phenomenon we have no experience of in our terrestrial lives.

That phenomenon is cryovolcanoes. And Ceres seems to have them.

The most startling feature on Ceres is Occator Crater. This 57 mile-wide feature is the result of a massive impact tens of millions of years ago. Large craters on small worlds isn’t necessarily a strange thing in our battered solar system, but what is strange about Occator is the very bright feature (and small bright patches surrounding it) in the crater’s center. Even before Dawn arrived in orbit and only fuzzy images of Ceres were available, hopes were high that this bright anomaly in the otherwise gray Cererian landscape could be indicative of ices or some mineral compound that was formed by the presence of water.

There have been many studies into Occator’s icy center, but new research into the crater’s age compared to the bright spot’s age appears to, once again, point to a cryovolcanic origin.

Cryovolcanoes — or, simply, ice volcanoes — are hypothetical features that are believed to be common throughout the outer solar system. These ice volcanoes are thought to erupt in a similar fashion to the volcanoes we have on Earth, but instead of molten rock, these volcanoes erupt ice-cold volatiles — like water, methane or ammonia. Dwarf planet Pluto, for example, has features that look like cryovolcanoes, as does Saturn’s moon Titan and Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. These locations are extremely cold and known to contain large quantities of methane and water, so internal heating (caused by radioactive decay or tidal processes) melt the ices and force them to the surface. When they vent through the crust, gases are released and the liquids quickly freeze and sublimate.

Around these vents, cryovolcanoes will grow, and if Ceres really does have its own ice volcanoes, this will be the closest planetary body to the sun (and Earth) known to have them.

Now, in research headed by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Göttingen, Germany, scientists using Dawn data have, for the first time, taken a stab at dating the age of the bright material in the center of Occator Crater and realized that the location has likely been the site of many cryovolcanic eruptions in the recent past.

Occator Crater as observed by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

In the center of Occator, a pit measuring around 7 miles wide can be found, likely formed during the massive impact approximately 30 million years ago. But around the edges of that pit are mountains, some 750 meters high, and in the center is a cracked dome measuring 400 meters high and nearly 2 miles wide. This bright dome is called Cerealia Facula and surrounding it appears to be material that was spewed from a cryovolcanic vent. Analysis has shown that this material contains salts that were formed in the presence of water from Ceres’ interior and then deposited onto the surface. The minerals around Cerealia Facula has been dated to only four million years, meaning that there has been cryovolcanic eruptions long after the Occator impact punctured Ceres’ crust.

“The age and appearance of the material surrounding the bright dome indicate that Cerealia Facula was formed by a recurring, eruptive process, which also hurled material into more outward regions of the central pit,” said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator of Dawn’s Framing Camera. “A single eruptive event is rather unlikely.” As noted in an MPS news release, Jupiter moons Callisto and Ganymede have similar features that are also believed to be related to cryovolcanic eruptions.

“The large impact that tore the giant Occator crater into the surface of the dwarf planet must have originally started everything and triggered the later cryovolcanic activity,” added Nathues.

Previous imagery of haze inside Occator Crater has led to the suspicion that ices remain on the surface today; the haze could be vapor from sublimating water ice exposed on the surface having been forced to the surface from Ceres’ interior. Evidence for this haze has been supported by other studies and appears to vary throughout the day as one would expect — increased sunlight would accelerate sublimation (ice turning from a solid to a vapor without passing through the liquid phase).

If volatiles are still being extruded through this vent today, this would seem to indicate that, in addition to the cryovolcanic eruptions in the last four million years, some form of activity continues to this day. Add this to the recent discovery of organic material on Ceres’ surface, this small world has become a very big asset for planetary science.

For more on Ceres’ icy eruptions, check out one of my last DNews videos:

Mars’ Ancient Mega-Floods Are Still Etched Into the Red Planet

Around 3.5 billion years ago — when basic life was just gaining a foothold on Earth — the Tharsis region on Mars was swamped with vast floods that scar the landscape to this day.

Rendered perspective view of Worcester Crater using Mars Express elevation data. The dramatic crater rim was carved by the flow of ancient floodwater (ESA)

Mars wears its geological history like a badge of honor — ancient craters remain unchanged for hundreds of millions of years and long-extinct volcanoes look as if they were venting only yesterday. This is the nature of Mars’ thin, cold atmosphere; erosional processes that rapidly delete Earth’s geological history are largely absent on the Red Planet, creating a smorgasbord of features that provide planetary scientists with an open book on Mars’ ancient past.

In this latest observation from the European Mars Express mission, a flood of biblical proportions has been captured in all its glory. But this flood didn’t happen recently, this flood engulfed a vast plain to the north of the famous Valles Marineris region billions of years ago.

It is believed that a series of volcanic eruptions and tectonic upheavals in the Tharsis region caused several massive groundwater releases from Echus Chasma, a collection of valleys some 100 kilometers (62 miles) long and up to 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) deep. These powerful bursts of water carved vast outflow channels into the adjacent Lunae Planum, contributing to the formation of the Kasei Valles outflow channels, releasing water into the vast Chryse Planitia plains which acted as a “sink.” Smaller “dendritic” channels can be seen throughout the plain, indicating that there were likely many episodic bursts of water flooding the region.

This context image shows a region of Mars where Kasei Vallis empties into the vast Chryse Planitia (NASA MGS MOLA Science Team)
This context image shows a region of Mars where Kasei Vallis empties into the vast Chryse Planitia (NASA MGS MOLA Science Team)

These floods happened between 3.4 to 3.6 billion years ago, less than a billion years after the most basic lifeforms started to appear on Earth (a period of time known as the Paleoarchean era).

In the middle of what was likely a powerful, vast and turbulent flows of water is Worcester Crater that was created before the Tharsis floods and, though its crater rim stands to this day and retains its shape, it was obviously affected by the flow of water, with a “tail” of sediment downstream.

ESA Mars Express observation of the mouth of Kasei Valles, as it transitions into Chryse Planitia. The large crater in the lower left is Worcester Crater. (ESA/DLR/FU Berlin)
ESA Mars Express observation of the mouth of Kasei Valles, as it transitions into Chryse Planitia. The large crater in the lower left is Worcester Crater (ESA/DLR/FU Berlin)

Also of note are smaller “fresh” craters that would have appeared long after the flooding took place, excavating the otherwise smooth outflow channels. These younger craters have tails that seem to be pointed in the opposite direction of the flow of water. These tails weren’t caused by the flow of water, but by the prevailing wind direction.

From orbital observations by our armada of Mars missions, it is well known that these channels contain clays and other minerals associated with the long-term presence of water. Although the Red Planet is now a very dry place, as these beautiful Mars Express images show, this certainly hasn’t always been the case.

On Mars, There’s No Asphalt

Curiosity's right-middle and rear wheels, bearing the scars of 488 sols of rough roving. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Curiosity’s right-middle and rear wheels, bearing the scars of 488 sols of rough roving. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If you’re like me, you hang off every news release and new photo from our tenacious Mars rover Curiosity. The awesome one-ton, six-wheeled robot is, after all, exploring a very alien landscape. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the mission, Mars is far from being a truly alien place. Sure, we can’t breath the thin frigid air, but we can certainly recognize similar geological processes that we have on Earth, and, most intriguingly, regions that would have once been habitable for life as we know it. This doesn’t mean there was life, just that once upon a time parts of Gale Crater would have been pretty cozy for terrestrial microbes. Personally, I find that notion fascinating.

But, way back in May, I noticed something awry with our beloved rover’s wheels. Curiosity’s beautiful aircraft-grade aluminum wheels were looking rather beaten up. Punctures had appeared. Fearing the worst I reached out to NASA to find out what was going on. After a friendly email exchange with lead rover driver Matt Heverly, I felt a lot more at ease: The damage was predicted; dings, scratches, even holes were expected to appear in the thinnest (0.75 mm thick) aluminum between the treads. On Mars, after all, there is no asphalt. Also, erosion is a slower-paced affair in the thin winds and dry environment — sharp, fractured rocks protrude, embedding themselves into the wheels at every slow turn.

Then, on Friday, in a news update on Curiosity’s progress, JPL scientists mentioned that they would be commanding the rover to drive over a comparatively smooth patch to evaluate the condition of the wheels as their condition is getting worse. But isn’t that to be expected? Apparently not to this degree. “Dents and holes were anticipated, but the amount of wear appears to have accelerated in the past month or so,” said Jim Erickson, project manager for the NASA Mars Science Laboratory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

So what are we looking at here?


All of the wheels are exhibiting wear and tear, but this particular ‘rip’ in aluminum is by far the most dramatic. But what does that mean for Curiosity? We’ll have to wait and see once JPL engineers have assessed their condition. Although this kind of damage has inevitably been worked into the the structural equations for the wheels’ load-bearing capabilities, whichever way you look at it, damage like this is not good — especially as Curiosity hasn’t even roved three miles yet.

But in the spirit of Mars exploration, Curiosity will soldier on regardless of how rough the red planet treats her.

Read more in my coverage on Discovery News, a location you’ll find me during most daylight (and many nighttime) hours: