Science Friday has an excellent update on the Mars science program and planned projects for Mars. They also discuss possible missions in the next 5 to 10 years. The podcast should be available later today here:

Here’s the description of the segment from their web site:

In this segment, we’ll get the big picture on science on the planet Mars. From orbiting observatories to roving rovers to the ditch-digging Phoenix — what have planetary scientists learned about Mars, and what remains to be discovered?

The most recent visitor to the Red Planet is NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, which launched in August 2007 as the first mission in NASA’s Scout Program. Phoenix is designed to study the history of water and habitability potential in the Martian arctic’s ice-rich soil. So far, the lander has identified water ice in soil samples, and has detected the chemical perchlorate in the soil, a sign of the presence of liquid water in the past.

The Phoenix Mars Lander joins the twin rovers of the Mars Exploration Rover project, Spirit and Opportunity, which have been in operation since 2004. Now running years past their planned lifetime on Mars, the rovers are still exploring the surface. Rover Opportunity recently exited the Victoria Crater after several months on the crater floor.

Several orbiting observatories, including Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are examining the different aspects of the planet from above. The orbiting platforms have studied the planet’s atmosphere, mapped its surface, and are also supporting the ground-based exploration missions.

We’re broadcasting this week from Tucson, Arizona, home base for NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, as guests of Arizona Public Media.”


Image: NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity climbed out of “Victoria Crater” following the tracks it had made when it descended into the half-mile-diameter bowl nearly a year earlier.


Mars_LavaFlow_031408 An image from July 19, 2005 of the Daedalia Planum on Mars reveals some of the volcanic upheavals the planet has undergone in the past. The image at left is from the Mars Express spacecraft.

The Mars Express team has recently analyzed and determined that Mars experienced violent volcanic activity on a large scale five different times in the past: covering 3.5 billion years ago, 1.5 billion years ago, 400-800 million years ago, 200 million years ago and 100 million years ago. That’s a few years ago!


The ages of these events have been estimated by counting the number of small craters appearing on the landscape based on the theory that the older the surface, the more craters it will have had time to accumulate. The non-cratered areas may have had craters in the past but has been recently (in geological terms) been filled in or covered over by lava flows.

An interesting side-effect of the lava flows is internal heat generated by the volcanic activity which caused water to escape from the interior, creating flash flooding on a large scale. As the interior is not yet cold, scientists believe these eruptions could occur again. We have to wait to see if we can pick up any of this activity while Mars Express is in orbit. It’s mission continues at least until May 2009.