Hear from scientists, engineers and other experts as they offer a fascinating look at JPL missions, science and history.
Since Phoenix landed in the northern hemisphere of Mars, the spacecraft has discovered:
1. Water ice near the surface of Mars! And it is really close to the surface, as the orbiting Odyssey spacecraft predicted, and Phoenix confirmed. This demonstrates science in action: data, hypothesis, confirmation of hypothesis.
2. The pH of Martian arctic soil is basic (or alkaline), rather than acidic. On Earth, soil pH is important because most food plants prefer an acidic or neutral soil to grow. Bacteria usually thrive in acidic soils as well. So what we found on Mars is not necessarily the best news for the search for life. One thing I think astrobiologists would agree upon, however, is that life is very adaptable and can exist in many extreme environments!
3. Unlike the landing sites of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers near the planet’s equator, there are no soils with sulfur compounds, or sulfates, in this part of Mars. Spirit and Opportunity found that the soils at their landing sites were cemented together with sulfur compounds. Sulfates do not act as cementing chemicals where Phoenix landed in the Martian arctic.
4. The soil grains Phoenix found are a mixture of angular and rounded particles, with a myriad of colors from rust to white to black. They show degrees of weathering and different chemical compositions.
5. There are high level clouds and ground fogs every night, and the general weather patterns are repeatable.
6. A chemical called perchlorate appears to be prevalent in the soil. On Earth, perchlorate forms in arid areas where there is very little rainfall. The team is still working to understand how perchlorate affects whether life could have existed in this region on Mars.
What does all of this mean? Well for starters, Mars has a diverse geology and geochemistry, much like Earth. Making generalizations about Mars planetwide is probably not the right approach, because of the planet’s diversity. What does it all mean for the bigger picture? Ah, that’s where the difficult science comes in. This takes time. Many members of the science team expect to have their findings ready by December, to coincide with a big science conference in San Francisco. So stay tuned!
Remember the warning to beware of yellow snow? Well, what’s true in your backyard is true on a much larger scale too. (For those from warmer climates, yellow-tinted snow is a sign that a dog or other animal has recently “paid a visit.”)
Snow at Earth’s north and south poles can also be tainted. Certain molecules — ones that can eventually damage our protective ozone layer in the stratosphere, affect the air down in the troposphere where we live, and possibly contribute to climate change — are being deposited into the snow.
Just how is this happening? Start with the fact that air at lower latitudes circulates toward the poles. This air carries ozone-damaging molecules picked up in industrial, highly populated areas. Once over the poles, some of these molecules are deposited onto the snowpack, where they migrate to thin liquid films in snow. Once sunlight hits the snow, the light energy breaks down these molecules, which are then released back into the atmosphere, giving the area over the poles a double hit of ozone-damaging molecules.
Scientists are finding that snow has unique properties that make these chemical reactions happen much faster than we used to believe. We don’t fully understand why this is happening, but we know that the mixture of sun (an energy source) and snow bring about the release of these ozone-damaging molecules into the atmosphere much faster than in areas without snow.
Many of the polluting molecules that remain in the snow eventually get incorporated in the polar food chain. When the snow melts into the sea, the molecules may be ingested by sea creatures. Not all of them are unhealthy, but some of them are.
Why care about reactions going on in distant, frozen expanses at Earth’s poles? Those regions are a beacon of climate change, where we see chemical processes that may play a large role in the planet’s future.
My wife likes to gamble. She's no high roller or anything, but give her a hundred dollars, a spare weekend and a room full of slot machines and she's happy.
Not me, though. Somewhere along the way, I guess I took one too many math classes and betting against the house just isn't much fun anymore.
But I understand why she likes it. It's the ups and downs of gambling that are fun. You lose, lose, lose and then every once in a while you win a great big jackpot. Maybe you even win enough to make up for the last 30 or 40 bets you lost. But like any game in the casino, the odds are stacked against you. If you play long enough, you will eventually lose.
Global warming and climate change work in much the same way. Wait long enough and odds are, the Earth will be warmer. But will tomorrow be warmer than today? Who knows! There are plenty of things about the atmosphere and ocean that can't be predicted. Over a period of days or weeks, we call these unpredictable changes "the weather."
No one can predict the weather more than a few days in advance, any more than they can predict which slot the roulette ball will land in before the croupier spins it. Weather, like roulette, is essentially random.
But a little randomness doesn't stop casino owners from taking your bet at the roulette table. They know the odds, and they know if enough bets are laid they will eventually come out ahead. Climate scientists know that, too.
Random events happen in the atmosphere and oceans all the time. Not just the weather, but things like El Nino, La Nina and huge volcanic eruptions can make the planet warm up or cool down for years at time. There could even be a few others that we haven't discovered yet.
Still, for all its short-term ups and downs Earth's average temperature has risen dramatically over the last one hundred years. That's no accident. Like the house edge at the roulette table, human-made greenhouse gasses have tilted the odds in favor of a warming planet.
Sometimes it's easy to forget that fact when new science results come out. Like the recreational gambler, we often find it more fun to focus on the ups and downs: a short-term cooling period, a warm year during a big El Nino.
But for climate change and casino owners, it's important to remember the big picture. The roulette player might win three or four bets in a row, but that doesn't change the odds. Eventually the casino will win. Likewise, as long as humans continue to add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the planet will continue to warm.
So whenever people ask me about the latest warming or cooling in the climate record, I'm always reminded of my wife and her slot machines. By the end of the weekend her hundred dollars is almost always gone, but the thrill of the ups and downs kept her entertained for the entire time. "Did you win?" people ask. She always flashes her sly smile and says, "Sometimes!"
What is Kepler?
Kepler is a mission that is designed to find Earth-sized planets outside our solar system. Specifically, it will look for these rocky planets in the "habitable zone" near their stars — meaning at a distance where liquid water could exist on the surface.
Kepler will accomplish this by monitoring a large set of stars (approximately 100,000) and looking for the signature dip in brightness that indicates that a planet has crossed between the spacecraft and the star. The instrument that detects this dip is called a photometer — literally, a "light meter." It is basically a large telescope that funnels the light from the stars onto a CCD array (similar to the ones used in digital cameras).
By surveying such a large number of stars using this "transit" method, Kepler will be able to determine the frequency of Earth-sized (and larger) planets around a wide variety of stars.
What do I think is cool about this mission?
I love the fact that the Kepler approach - looking for the dips in stellar brightness that occur when a planet passes between the photometer and a star - is so straightforward. It is such a wonderfully simple way to look for planets! Of course in practice, there are plenty of complicating factors that make this a challenging mission to execute. The change in brightness that we are looking for is very small (on the order of 0.01 percent). To make sure we can detect that, we have to carefully control noise in the system - things like electronic noise from reading out the CCDs, smear from tiny motions of the spacecraft, etc. These and other aspects of the mission have provided plenty of challenges to keep things interesting for the design team.
One of my favorite things about the Kepler mission is that the patch of sky we will be surveying is near a particular group of highly recognizable constellations. The stars Kepler will look at are in the area of what is known as the Summer Triangle, a group of constellations - Aquila, Cygnus and Lyra - that are overhead at midnight when viewed from northern latitudes in the summer months. When the scientist team starts identifying planets in our field of view, anyone will be able to go outside, point towards the Summer Triangle and say "they've just discovered a planet over there." To me, there is something about that which will make the discoveries that much more personal.
I am also a huge sci-fi fan and I have always been particularly fascinated by books and movies about how humans might some day colonize other worlds in the galaxy. I think it is fantastic to get to work on a mission that will be looking for planets outside our solar system that are Earth-sized and in a range around their stars that could be habitable; places where such colonization could one day take place... I can't wait to see what we find!
What do I do?
I am a member of the Project System Engineering Team at JPL. This team is responsible for a wide variety of tasks on Kepler, aimed at ensuring the project meets the driving scientific and technological objectives. This often involves checking that the interfaces between the different elements of the project work smoothly. For example, one of our responsibilities is to conduct end-to-end tests of the mission's information system. In this test, we check to make sure that the right commands are being generated to collect data, data is collected using spacecraft hardware, and then the data flows correctly through the ground data system. This lets us verify that the entire data flow chain functions as it should before we launch.
My particular focus has been ensuring that we work out all of the details associated with executing each of the mission phases (the launch phase, the on-orbit checkout period that we call the commissioning phase, and the main data-gathering portion of the mission, which is the science phase). I work closely with my colleagues at NASA Ames, Ball Aerospace and JPL to identify and resolve open issues associated with planning for, testing and eventually executing the activities associated with these phases.
What is happening on the project right now?
The project is in what is known as the Assembly, Test and Launch Operations phase. Right now, the assembled spacecraft and instrument (known collectively as the flight system) is in the middle of the environmental testing campaign at Ball. This involves many hours of running the flight system and monitoring its performance while exposing it to the types of temperatures, pressures and other conditions that it will see in space. The system that will collect and distribute the data is undergoing integrated testing as well, with teams of people working to push test data through all of the various ground interfaces. The operations team — the people who will be responsible for generating and testing commands, monitoring the health and safety of the spacecraft and ensuring that data is collected from it by the Deep Space Network — are undergoing training and getting ready for upcoming mission phase rehearsals that we call "operational readiness tests." Even though we are still several months away from launch, it is a very busy time on the project!
Who is involved?
The principle investigator and the science office that will lead the scientific data analysis are at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. The spacecraft and photometer were built at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation in Boulder, Colo. The mission operations center is located at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The mission is managed here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
We've been steadily learning about what it takes to run this thing called the Phoenix lander. As expected, not everything has gone exactly as planned. But that in its own way was planned -- we work to maintain flexibility in our schedule and our design, so that we can absorb new things that happen without throwing the whole team into a tizzy! So what have we been doing?
The Robotic Arm Camera on Phoenix captured this image underneath the lander on the fifth Martian day of the mission. The abundance of excavated smooth and level surfaces adds evidence to a hypothesis that the underlying material is an ice table covered by a thin blanket of soil.
The wet chemistry experiment in one of the lander's instruments called the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA, also found salts in the soil samples. Salts are only formed when water has been present! So that is another indicator that there was abundant water in this region of Mars. What are these salts? They appear to be chemicals containing sodium, magnesium, potassium and chlorine. The soils were found to be alkaline, with a pH greater than 7 -- similar to soils in the upper dry valleys of Antarctica.
But, like I said, everything hasn't been totally smooth. The team discovered that the Martian soil is lumpy and sticks together. That made the first sample difficult to deliver! So the team thought about how to make the process easier, and we figured out various ways to break up the lumps. We tried three methods: de-lumping, sprinkling and agitation.
De-lumping refers to shaking the acquired material in the scoop by running a Dremel-like tool that vibrates the entire scoop, breaking up clumps. Then there is sprinkling: By running the rasp while slightly tipping the scoop, the team can command Phoenix to send a small shower and sift particles down into the TEGA (Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer ) and MECA instruments rather than dumping a whole load of clumped-up dirt onto each instrument. As for agitation, the TEGA instrument has a method to shake itself -- it has an agitator which shakes the sample loose if anything has stuck to its entry port. The sprinkle and agitation methods have been routinely adopted for sample delivery.
The neat consequence of this is that it solves what had always been our worry about how to deliver the same sample to each instrument for comparison of science results. The sprinkle delivery method enables us to put a large sample into the scoop and deliver part of it to MECA microscopy, part to MECA wet chemistry and part to the TEGA instrument. Same sample problem: solved!!
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade! Or in this case, Marsade!
Here we are, four years after the Cassini spacecraft entered orbit around Saturn. We're about to begin the extended mission, termed the Cassini Equinox Mission. Cassini has been a scientifically remarkable mission and a fantastic return on the investment. If you are reading this blog, then you might already know about Cassini's discoveries at Enceladus, Titan, the other icy moons, the rings, the magnetosphere and Saturn itself. But if you're new to following this mission, you can catch up on those discoveries by reading about them here: http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/features/feature20080627.cfm.
This great science is accomplished by an international team of scientists and engineers. I am thrilled to be able to carry the scientific reins for Cassini as its incoming project scientist. The project scientist is essentially the mission's chief scientist, who watches out for the overall scientific integrity of the mission.
My own background is in the geology of icy moons of the outer solar system. Though the planets have always enthralled me, I trace this specific icy interest back to a course I took as an undergraduate at Cornell University in about 1984, taught by Carl Sagan and his post-doctoral research associate Reid Thompson, entitled "Ices and Oceans in the Outer Solar System." The course included discussion of Jupiter's moon Europa, which it was thought might have a globe-girdling ocean beneath its icy surface -- an idea that would be further tested by the Galileo spacecraft when it arrived at Jupiter a decade later. We also learned about Saturn's haze-shrouded moon Titan, which might just have seas of organic rain and liquids on its surface -- but we wouldn't know for certain until the Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn two decades later. Who could possibly wait so long? And who would have thought that once we all did, both of these seemingly far-fetched ideas would turn out to be correct? (If only Carl and Reid could be here today to know it.)
Two years ago I came to JPL with the goal of getting the next flagship mission to the outer solar system off the ground. It takes a great deal of time and energy to make such a mission a reality. They are relatively expensive and take a long time from concept to completion. But just as others before me -- such as Galileo Project Scientist Torrence Johnson and Cassini Project Scientist Dennis Matson -- have worked to send those missions into space, I would help create the next mission, potentially to orbit Jupiter's moon Europa. Currently I serve as JPL's study scientist for the Europa Orbiter mission concept. This mission concept is in friendly competition with a mission that would orbit Titan. I hope that somehow, in time, we can make both of these spectacular mission concepts come to fruition.
Entering into the wonderland that is Cassini, my eyes are wide open to the science and engineering behind the curtain, while wary of its history and complexity. My operating philosophy is to always be true to the science. With good planning and good fortune, Cassini will keep going down the road for many years to come, following up on its prime mission discoveries and in making new ones that we can't dream of yet.
Stay tuned for more to come. It'll be a great ride!
Thanks to all those who posted comments! I'm glad to see that there is so much interest in the Phoenix mission! I wanted to address a few key items.
First off, some staff from the Mars Science Laboratory project will be writing blog entries, so please hold your questions about that mission until the end of summer, when those blogs begin!
Phoenix's Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA, has given the team some head-scratchers, and those challenges continue. In my last blog I talked about lumpy soil, sprinkling and delivery mechanisms. TEGA has been using a method to agitate its cells to help move the soil down from the collection area into the oven as well. Well, it turns out there was a short circuit in a TEGA cell number four when we used the agitator on that cell in June. We used that same agitator for repeated periods of many minutes each time while we were getting the first soil sample into TEGA. Project engineers determined the likely cause was running the screen-agitator longer than we ever had done in pre-launch testing. Running the circuit for such a long time caused some wire insulation to get too warm, causing a short. That short in itself did not cause or threaten any problem with operating TEGA, just on the "grounded" portion of the circuit. It was on the return part of the circuit, between where the current does its work and the ground connection. And then that short apparently healed itself when doors for cell number zero were opened on July 19! However, the occurrence of any short raised concerns that another short circuit might possibly occur, and if it did, it might be a more harmful one. That concern still exists, and has prompted at least two precautions -- a decision to change sampling strategy to treat each TEGA sample as if it could be the last, and an operational rule to avoid running a screen-agitation for more than three minutes without a cool-down period before resuming.
Trying to get samples into the chemistry experiment was a big topic during development. When Peter Smith proposed to send Phoenix to the Martian arctic, the intention was to use as many already-developed pieces as possible. New methods of delivering material to the chemistry experiments on the lander deck had to be simple, because the original design was to use the scoop to dump soil. However, based on pre-launch testing, the original method of scraping/scooping the soil to generate a sample didn't appear to work on ground that is frozen so hard that the ice and soil behaves like cement! The Phoenix team has been doing many tests to ensure that the alternative method, using a little Dremel-like tool called the rasp, works. These tests were done on analogs of extra-hard Martian soil, but there is still nothing like testing with the real stuff on Mars. The Phoenix team had established that the rasp will acquire enough icy soil to deliver a proper sample to TEGA. Those on-Mars tests have taken a long time, as expected. Mars continues to amaze the science and engineering team - the Martian soil is behaving unlike any sample the team used in practice back on Earth! The exciting news is that the team was able to get a sample with a bit of ice into TEGA after all!
Another item came up regarding better ways to clear off the ice table. I'll tell you that the Phoenix development team wrestled with this topic for quite some time. Field studies show that a brush is the best way to remove loose soil from a region a geologist wishes to sample. The problem of course, is that then the brush gets dirty! The ability to clean the brush for further use becomes the problem. The soil on Mars is very, very sticky due to small particle sizes, salts and ice that appear to be acting as cements, and electrostatic properties that cause dust-sized particles to be charged and stick to each other that way too. The team could not come up with a reasonable, relatively inexpensive brush/cleaning mechanism in the short development cycle that the Phoenix mission undertook. (Remember that the mission was only approved in August 2003!) The notion of using the scraping blade on the robotic arm was deemed the most expedient, least costly way to clean surfaces.
Hope this answers some of your questions. Thanks for all of your interest!