Cassini Survives First Saturn Ring Dive and Returns Historic Photos

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NASA/JPL-Caltech

UPDATE (1:30 a.m. PT): A firehose of Cassini data has opened up and raw images of the spacecraft’s approach to the ring plane are coming in at a rapid pace. You can see the raw images appear online at the same time Cassini’s science team sees them here. At time of writing (and without any scientific analysis) the images have been of Saturn’s polar vortex and various views of the planet’s upper atmosphere. It’s going to take some time for more detailed views to become available, but, wow, it’s exhilarating to see Cassini images arrive at such a rate. Here are a few:

Original: As NASA planned, just before midnight on Wednesday (April 26), the veteran Cassini spacecraft made radio contact with the Goldstone 70-meter antenna in California, part of the Deep Space Network (DSN), which communicates with missions in space. Within minutes, Goldstone was receiving data, meaning the spacecraft had not only survived its first ring dive of the “Grand Finale” phase of its mission, but that it was also transmitting science data from a region of space that we’ve never explored before.

“We did it! Cassini is in contact with Earth and sending back data after a successful dive through the gap between Saturn and its rings,” tweeted the official NASA Cassini account just after the DSN confirmed it was receiving telemetry.

“The gap between Saturn and its rings is no longer unexplored space – and we’re going back 21 times,” they added.

Around 22 hours prior to Cassini’s signal, the spacecraft made its daring transit through the gap between Saturn’s upper atmosphere and innermost ring after using the gravity of Titan on Friday (April 21) to send it on a ballistic trajectory through the ring plane. But during that time the spacecraft went silent, instead devoting resources to carrying out science observations during the dive.

Of course there was much anticipation for Cassini to “phone home” tonight and it did just that right on schedule and now we can look forward to another 21 dives through Saturn’s rings before Cassini burns up in the gas giant’s upper atmosphere on Sept. 15, ending its epic 13 year mission at the solar system’s ringed planet.

“No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn’s other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like,” said Earl Maize, Cassini Project Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement. “I am delighted to report that Cassini shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape.”

So now we wait until images of this never-before-explored region of Saturn are released.

Read more about Cassini’s historic ring dive in my Space.com interview with Cassini deputy project scientist Scott Edgington.

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Cassini Sees Earth and Moon Through Saturn’s Rings

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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”).

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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.

Smallest ‘Super-Earth’ Discovered With an Atmosphere — but It’s No Oasis

MPIA

For the first time, astronomers have detected an atmosphere around a small (and likely) rocky exoplanet orbiting a star only 39 light-years away. Although atmospheres have been detected on larger alien worlds, this is the smallest world to date that has been found sporting atmospheric gases.

Alas, Gliese (GJ) 1132b isn’t a place we’d necessarily call “habitable”; it orbits its red dwarf a little too close to have an atmosphere anything like Earth’s, so you’d have to be very optimistic if you expect to find life (as we know it) camping there. But this is still a huge discovery that is creating a lot of excitement — especially as this exo-atmosphere has apparently evolved intact so close to a star.

The atmosphere was discovered by an international team of astronomers using the 2.2 meter ESO/MPG telescope at La Silla Observatory in Chile. As the exoplanet orbited in front of the star from our perspective (known as a “transit”), the researchers were able to deduce the physical size of the world by the fraction of starlight it blocked. The exoplanet is around 40 percent bigger than Earth (and 60 percent more massive) making it a so-called “super-Earth.”

Through precision observations of the infrared light coming from the exoplanet during the 1.6 day transits, the astronomers noticed that the planet looked larger at certain wavelengths of light than others. In short, this means that the planet has an atmosphere that blocks certain infrared wavelengths, but allows other wavelengths to pass straight through. Researchers of the University of Cambridge and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy then used this information to model certain chemical compositions, leading to the conclusion that the atmosphere could be a thick with methane or water vapor.

Judging by the exoplanet’s close proximity to its star, this could mean that the planet is a water world, with an extremely dense and steamy atmosphere. But this is just one of the possibilities.

“The presence of the atmosphere is a reason for cautious optimism,” writes a Max Planck Institute for Astronomy news release. “M dwarfs are the most common types of star, and show high levels of activity; for some set-ups, this activity (in the shape of flares and particle streams) can be expected to blow away nearby planets’ atmospheres. GJ 1132b provides a hopeful counterexample of an atmosphere that has endured for billion of years (that is, long enough for us to detect it). Given the great number of M dwarf stars, such atmospheres could mean that the preconditions for life are quite common in the universe.”

To definitively work out what chemicals are in GJ 1132b’s atmosphere, we may not be waiting that long. New techniques for deriving high-resolution spectra of exoplanetary atmospheres are in the works and this exoplanet will be high on the list of priorities in the hunt for extraterrestrial biosignatures. (For more on this, you can check out a recent article I wrote for HowStuffWorks.)

Although we’ll not be taking a vacation to GJ 1132b any time soon, the discovery of an atmosphere around such a small alien world will boost hopes that similar sized super-Earths will also host atmospheres, despite living close to red dwarf stars that are known for their flaring activity. If atmospheres can persist, particularly on exoplanets orbiting within a star’s so-called habitable zone, then there really should be cause for optimism that there really might be an “Earth 2.0” out there orbiting one of the many red dwarfs in our galaxy.

A Powerful Galactic Explosion Has Been Detected — and Astronomers Aren’t Sure What Caused It

NASA/CXC/Pontifical Catholic Univ./F.Bauer et al.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has detected a mysterious explosion in deep space and, although astronomers have some suspected causes for the incredibly powerful event, there’s a possibility that it could be something we’ve never witnessed before.

The signal is the deepest X-ray source ever recorded and it appears to be related to a galaxy located approximately 10.7 billion light-years away (it therefore happened 10.7 billion years ago, when the universe was only three billion years old). Over the course of only a few minutes in October 2014, this event produced a thousand times more energy than all the stars in its galaxy. Before that time, there were no X-rays originating from this location and there’s been nothing since.

The explosion occurred in a region of sky called the Chandra Deep Field-South (CDF-S) — the event was therefore designated “CDF-S XT1” — and archived observations of that part of the sky by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and NASA’s Spitzer space telescope revealed that it originated from within a faint, small galaxy.

“Ever since discovering this source, we’ve been struggling to understand its origin,” said Franz Bauer of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, Chile, in a statement. “It’s like we have a jigsaw puzzle but we don’t have all of the pieces.”

One possibility is that we could be looking at the effects of a huge stellar explosion, known as a gamma-ray burst (GRB). GRBs are caused when a massive star implodes and blasts powerful gamma-rays as intense beams from its poles — think super-sized supernova on acid. They can also be caused by cataclysmic collisions between two neutron stars or a neutron star and black holes. Should one of those beams be directed at Earth, over 10.7 billion light-years of travel, the gamma-ray radiation would have dispersed and arrived here at a lower, X-ray energy, possibly explaining CDF-S XT1.

Alternatively, the signal may have been caused by the rapid destruction of a white dwarf star falling into a black hole. Alas, none of these explanations fully fit the observation and it could, actually, be a new phenomenon.

“We may have observed a completely new type of cataclysmic event,” said Kevin Schawinski, of ETH Zurich in Switzerland. “Whatever it is, a lot more observations are needed to work out what we’re seeing.”

So, in short, watch this space.

The research will be published in the June edition of the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and is available online.

Exoplanets Are Sacrificing Moons to Their White Dwarf Overlords

An artist’s impression of a planet, comet and debris field surrounding a white dwarf star (NASA/ESA)

As if paying tribute, exoplanets orbiting white dwarfs appear to be throwing their exomoons into hot atmospheres of these stellar husks.

This fascinating conclusion comes from a recent study into white dwarf stars that appear to have atmospheres that are “polluted” with rocky debris.

A white dwarf forms after a sun-like star runs out of hydrogen fuel and starts to burn heavier and heavier elements in its core. When this happens, the star bloats into a red giant, beginning the end of its main sequence life. After the red giant phase, and the star’s outer layers have been violently ripped away by powerful stellar winds, a small bright mass of degenerate matter (the white dwarf) and a wispy planetary nebula are left behind.

But what of the planetary system that used to orbit the star? Well, assuming they weren’t so close to the dying star that they were completely incinerated, any exoplanets remaining in orbit around a white dwarf have an uncertain future. Models predict that dynamical chaos will ensue and gravitational instabilities will be the norm. Exoplanets will shift in their orbits, some might even be flung clear of the star system all together. One thing is for sure, however, the tidal shear created by the compact white dwarf will be extreme, and should anything stray too close, it will be ripped to shreds. Asteroids will be pulverized, comets will fall and even planets will crumble.

Stray too close to a white dwarf and tidal shear will rip you to shreds (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Now, in a science update based on research published late last year in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, astronomers of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) have completed a series of simulations of white dwarf systems in an attempt to better understand where the “pollution” in these tiny stars’ atmospheres comes from.

To explain the quantities observed, the researchers think that not only is it debris from asteroids and comets, but the gravitational instabilities that throw the system into chaos are booting any moons — so-called exomoons — out of their orbits around exoplanets, causing them to careen into the white dwarfs.

The simulations also suggest that as the moons meander around the inner star system and fall toward the star, their gravities scramble to orbits of more asteroids and comets, boosting the around of material falling into the star’s atmosphere.

So there you have it, planets, should your star turn into a white dwarf (as our sun will in a few billion years), keep your moons close — your new stellar overlord will be asking for a sacrifice in no time.

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.

Mars Rover Curiosity’s Wheels Are Taking a Battering

The NASA robot continues to rove the unforgiving slopes of Mount Sharp, but dramatic signs of damage are appearing on its aluminum wheels.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

In 2013, earlier than expected signs of damage to Curiosity’s wheels were causing concern. Four years on and, unsurprisingly, the damage has gotten worse. The visible signs of damage have now gone beyond superficial scratches, holes and splits — on Curiosity’s middle-left wheel (pictured above), there are two breaks in the raised zigzag tread, known as “grousers.” Although this was to be expected, it’s not great news.

The damage, which mission managers think occurred some time after the last wheel check on Jan. 27, “is the first sign that the left middle wheel is nearing a wheel-wear milestone,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement.

After the 2013 realization that Curiosity’s aluminum wheels were accumulating wear and tear faster than hoped, tests on Earth were carried out to understand when the wheels would start to fail. To limit the damage, new driving strategies were developed, including using observations from orbiting spacecraft to help rover drivers chart smoother routes.

It was determined that once a wheel suffers three grouser breaks, the wheel would have reached 60 percent of its useful life. Evidently, the middle left wheel is almost there. According to NASA, Curiosity is still on course for fulfilling its science goals regardless of the current levels of wheel damage.

“This is an expected part of the life cycle of the wheels and at this point does not change our current science plans or diminish our chances of studying key transitions in mineralogy higher on Mount Sharp,” added Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s Project Scientist also at JPL.

While this may be the case, it’s a bit of a downer if you were hoping to see Curiosity continue to explore Mars many years beyond its primary mission objectives. Previous rover missions, after all, have set the bar very high — NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity continues to explore Meridiani Planum over 13 years since landing in January 2004! But Curiosity is a very different mission; it’s bigger, more complex and exploring a harsher terrain, all presenting very different engineering challenges.

Currently, the six-wheeled rover is studying dunes at the Murray formation and will continue to drive up Mount Sharp to its next science destination — the hematite-containing “Vera Rubin Ridge.” After that, it will explore a “clay-containing geological unit above that ridge, and a sulfate-containing unit above the clay unit,” writes NASA.

Since landing on Mars in August 2012, the rover has accomplished an incredible array of science, adding amazing depth to our understanding of the Red Planet’s habitable potential. To do this, it has driven 9.9 miles (16 kilometers) — and she’s not done yet, not by a long shot.

Mars May Have Once Been a Ringed Planet — and It Could Be Again

Mars’ moons were likely formed by a ring of debris blasted into space after the Red Planet was hit by a massive impact and, when the moon Phobos disintegrates in 70 million years, another ring may form.

mars-rings
Sunrise over Gale Crater as seen by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity and how it might look if the Red Planet had a ring system (NASA/JPL-Caltech-MSSS, edit by Ian O’Neill)

Mars is currently known as the “Red Planet” of the solar system; its unmistakable ruddy hue is created by dust rich in iron oxide covering its landscape. But in Mars’ ancient past, it might have also been called the “Ringed Planet” of the inner solar system and, in the distant future, it may sport rings once more.

The thing is, we live in a highly dynamic solar system, where the planets may appear static over human (or even civilization) timescales, but over millions to billions of years, massive changes to planetary bodies occur frequently. And should there be a massive impact on a small rocky world — on Mars, say — these changes can be nothing short of monumental.

In new NASA-funded research published in the journal Nature Geoscience, planetary scientists have developed a new model of Mars when it was hit by a massive impact over 4 billion years ago. This catastrophic impact created a vast basin called the Borealis Basin in the planet’s northern hemisphere and the event could be part of the reason why Mars lacks a global magnetic field — it’s hypothesized that a powerful impact (or series of impacts) caused massive disruption to the Martian inner dynamo.

But the impact also blasted a huge amount of rocky debris from Mars’ crust into space, ultimately settling into a ring system, like a miniaturized rocky version of Saturn. Over time, as the debris drifted away from Mars and settled, rocky chunks would have formed under gravity and these “moonlets” would have clumped together to form larger and larger moons. So far, so good; this is how we’d expect moons to form. But there’s a catch.

Phobos as imaged by Europe’s Mars Express mission (ESA)

After forming in Mars orbit, any moon would have slowly lost orbital altitude, creeping toward the planet’s so-called Roche Limit — a region surrounding any planetary body that is a bad place for any moon to hang out. The Roche Limit is the point at which a planet’s tidal forces become too great for the structural integrity of an orbiting body. When approaching this limit, the closest edge of the moon to the planet will experience a greater tidal pull than the far side, overcoming the body’s gravity. At some point, something has to give and the moon will start to break apart.

And this is what’s going to happen to Phobos in about 70 million years. Its orbit is currently degrading and when it reaches this invisible boundary, tidal stresses will pull it apart, trailing pieces of moon around the planet, some debris falling onto the Martian surface as a series of meteorite impacts, while others remain in orbit.

The research, carried out by David Minton and Andrew Hesselbrock of Purdue University, Lafayette in Indiana, theorizes that mysterious deposits of material around Mars’ equator might have come from the breakup of ancient moons that came before Phobos and Deimos.

“You could have had kilometer-thick piles of moon sediment raining down on Mars in the early parts of the planet’s history, and there are enigmatic sedimentary deposits on Mars with no explanation as to how they got there,” said Minton. “And now it’s possible to study that material.”

According to their model, each time a moon broke apart to create a ring, the next moon would be five times smaller than its predecessor.

In short, Mars and its moon may appear to be pretty much unchanged for billions of years, but the researchers think that up to seven moon-ring cycles have occurred over the last 4.3 billion years and Mars is on the verge (on geological timescales) of acquiring rings once more. Fascinating.