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Archive for the ‘space’ Category

 

NASA’s Phoenix spacecraft has discovered evidence of past water at its Martian landing site and spotted falling snow for the first time, scientists reported Monday.

With summer waning, less sunlight is reaching the spacecraft’s solar panels on Mars.

Soil experiments revealed the presence of two minerals known to be formed in liquid water. Scientists identified the minerals as calcium carbonate, found in limestone and chalk, and sheet silicate.

But exactly how that happened remains a mystery.

“It’s really kind of all up in the air,” said William Boynton, a mission scientist at the University of Arizona at Tucson.

A laser aboard the Phoenix recently detected snow falling from clouds more than two miles above its home in the northern arctic plains. The snow disappeared before reaching the ground. hoenix landed in the Martian arctic plains in May on a three-month mission to study whether the environment could be friendly to microbial life. One of its biggest discoveries so far is confirming the presence of ice on the planet.

Scientists long suspected frozen water was buried in the northern plains based on measurements from an orbiting spacecraft. The lander also found that the soil was slightly alkaline and contained important nutrients and minerals.

Scientists think there could have been standing water at the site in the past or the ice could have melted and interacted with the minerals.

 

Mars today is frigid and dry with no sign of water on the surface, but researchers believe the planet once was warmer and wetter.

NASA extended the three-month mission through the end of the year if Phoenix can survive that long. With summer waning, less sunlight is reaching the spacecraft’s solar panels.

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NASA’s planning to spend another month and $2 million on its Mars robotic rover mission to obtain more icy soil samples, study the weather, and size up the planet’s suitability for human life.

NASA scientists said that the Mars Phoenix Lander mission has been going so well that it plans to extend the rover’s stay through the end of September, instead of August. On May 25, the rover landed more than 200 miles away on the edge of a volcano in the northern hemisphere of Mars, and has since confirmed the existence of frozen ice on the red planet.

Part of the goal of the extended mission is to continue studying icy soil samples in the area of the Lander. Just Wednesday, scientists said that the rover’s robotic arm picked up a sample of Mars soil and put it into the rover’s onboard oven–an act that prompted celebration among the project leads. Early analysis of the sample proved the existence of a small amount of H20 because the ice melted, but the scientists ultimately want to collect a sample with a larger composition of permafrost.

NASA is particularly looking for organic materials, but it has yet to find them. One hypothesis is that the soil might contain a strong oxidant, according to one of the NASA scientists. Instead, it has found potassium–among other minerals–a clay-like component, and properties it has yet to identify.

One goal of the extended mission will be to dig two more trenches around the site of the rover and study their soil. NASA plans to name the trenches with fantasy names like its other ditches–Snow White and Goldilocks. The new ones will be named Cupboard and Neverland .

Phoenix is also giving the scientists their first details about weather in the Mars arctic. The extended mission will help NASA better understand seasonal changes from springtime in Mars, when the rover landed, to high summer, to the end of the mission in its fall timeframe. For example, the team is using sophisticated sensors to measure the atmosphere’s pressure, humidity and winds. So far, the sensors have shown maximum wind speeds of 15 miles per hour on Mars.

One of the mission’s requirements was to capture a color panoramic view of the  with its on-board 1-megapixel digital camera. The Phoenix team completed that task stitching together more than 400 images taken from the rover over a month’s time. According to the team, it took about 15 relay passes to download the data– 100 megabytes worth–from the craft. The image confirmed water ice underneath the site of the rover.

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NASA extends Saturn mission

NASA says it is extending the international Cassini mission that is touring Saturn and its moons for another two years.

The space agency announced the extension Tuesday. Since 2004, the unmanned probe has beamed back about 140,000 images. Its prime mission is slated to end in July.

The agency says the $160 million extension will allow Cassini to make 60 more revolutions around the ringed planet and fly by its largest moon, Titan, and four other satellites.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is funded by NASA and the European and Italian space agencies. Its original cost was $3.3 billion including $2.6 billion from the United States.

The mission is studying Saturn’s rings, atmosphere, storms and moons.

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