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.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took this picture of the Phoenix Lander gliding to the surface of Mars while it orbited overhead.

The Lander will soon be testing its robotic arm; first by unlatching its wrist and then flexing its elbow. This is critical to the success of the mission as the arm will be scooping soil samples of ice for analysis.Phoenix landing

 Image: NASA/ JPL/ Caltech/ Univ of Arizona











This image shows the Phoenix craft parachute during its descent on May. It landed near the Heimdall crater at at distance of 12 miles in front of the crater. NASA is using both the MRO and another vehicle orbiting Mars, Odyssey, to communicate with the Phoenix Lander. Commands have been sent for the Lander to take pictures of the area around it and to begin to move its robotic arm.

During the next three months, the arm will dig in the soil near the lander and scoop samples of soil and ice to instruments on the lander deck. Following the commands this morning, its movements will begin with unlatching the wrist, then moving the arm upwards in a stair-step manner. These movements are schedule for Wednesday, May 28.

Overall, the Lander team is quite pleased with the landing of the craft and the position where it is situated on the surface of Mars.

The image below was taken today and relayed with other information to the MRO this evening, which transmitted the image and data to earth from its orbit around Mars.

Lander image 052708

The rock that orbits Mars is Phobos, one of its two moons. Taken at a distance of 6,800 km ( 4,200 mi), the picture below was captured by HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Phobos

Check out the large impact crater on the right side of Phobos. There are striations emanating from the edge of the crater moving from the lower bottom right to the upper left of the face of the moon. It looks like flames left a mark after the impact. Probably not flames of course, but it is mind boggling to consider what might have caused these striations. Possibly ejected debris from an impact?

The crater has a name, naturally. Named Stickney, it has a diameter of 9 km ( 5.6 mi). Scientists from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express believe these marks occurred from impacts on Mars which ejected debris high enough up from the planet to have impacted Phobos. Those were probably some massive hits that Mars took, but Earth likely experienced the same thing.Mimas

Inside the crater Stickney can be seen a series of textures which are landslides formed when material fell into the crater. Phobos gravity is less than 1/1000 of Earth’s. They look like someone used a large spoon and scooped material out of the wall of the crater.

Stickney reminds me of the crater on Saturn’s moon, Mimas. The crater is named Herschel and defines Mimas, shown in the picture at right.

Actually, the two moons of Mars really are essentially rocks. They are believed to be stray asteroids that wandered in too close to Mars and were captured by the planet’s gravity.

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment based at the University of Arizona in Tucson, caught these avalanches occurring on the north polar scarps of MarsAvalanches on North Polar Scarps.

In total, four avalanches were imaged. The particulate in the avalanche is believed to be fine-grained ice and dust, even large chunks of rock. The picture at left shows clouds of dispersing, fine material in the air, falling to the ground.

Scarps  (PSP_007338_2640)
Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Of all the orbiting equipment around Mars, most pictures are of the ancient geological past, from millions of years ago. This is a rare moment when Martian geological activity is caught as it happens. The only other significant active events that can be seen as they happen are the Martian dust devils, mini-tornado like winds on the Martian surface.

The escarpment  imaged by HiRISE is over 2,300 feet high (700m) and has an angle of slope of over 60 degrees. The top piece of the scarp, at left in the image, is covered in bright white carbon dioxide frost. This frost retreats as the Martian spring approaches. By comparing this picture with prior pictures taken of the area before the avalanche, an understanding of the processes and rates of erosion can be gained. The interaction of carbon dioxide ice and gas as well as water can be studied to understand how the polar landscape has evolved and its implications for the geological history for the rest of the planet.

The HiRISE is onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The images were captured on February 19.

The HiRISE science team has a very interesting blog, though at times a bit technical, but not too much so, commenting on these findings and others at .