instruments of science

Incoming! We’ve Got Science from Jupiter!

Our Juno spacecraft has just released some exciting new science from its first close flyby of Jupiter! 

In case you don’t know, the Juno spacecraft entered orbit around the gas giant on July 4, 2016…about a year ago. Since then, it has been collecting data and images from this unique vantage point.

Juno is in a polar orbit around Jupiter, which means that the majority of each orbit is spent well away from the gas giant. But once every 53 days its trajectory approaches Jupiter from above its north pole, where it begins a close two-hour transit flying north to south with its eight science instruments collecting data and its JunoCam camera snapping pictures.

Space Fact: The download of six megabytes of data collected during the two-hour transit can take one-and-a-half days!

Juno and her cloud-piercing science instruments are helping us get a better understanding of the processes happening on Jupiter. These new results portray the planet as a complex, gigantic, turbulent world that we still need to study and unravel its mysteries.

So what did this first science flyby tell us? Let’s break it down…

1. Tumultuous Cyclones

Juno’s imager, JunoCam, has showed us that both of Jupiter’s poles are covered in tumultuous cyclones and anticyclone storms, densely clustered and rubbing together. Some of these storms as large as Earth!

These storms are still puzzling. We’re still not exactly sure how they formed or how they interact with each other. Future close flybys will help us better understand these mysterious cyclones. 

Seen above, waves of clouds (at 37.8 degrees latitude) dominate this three-dimensional Jovian cloudscape. JunoCam obtained this enhanced-color picture on May 19, 2017, at 5:50 UTC from an altitude of 5,500 miles (8,900 kilometers). Details as small as 4 miles (6 kilometers) across can be identified in this image.

An even closer view of the same image shows small bright high clouds that are about 16 miles (25 kilometers) across and in some areas appear to form “squall lines” (a narrow band of high winds and storms associated with a cold front). On Jupiter, clouds this high are almost certainly comprised of water and/or ammonia ice.

2. Jupiter’s Atmosphere

Juno’s Microwave Radiometer is an instrument that samples the thermal microwave radiation from Jupiter’s atmosphere from the tops of the ammonia clouds to deep within its atmosphere.

Data from this instrument suggest that the ammonia is quite variable and continues to increase as far down as we can see with MWR, which is a few hundred kilometers. In the cut-out image below, orange signifies high ammonia abundance and blue signifies low ammonia abundance. Jupiter appears to have a band around its equator high in ammonia abundance, with a column shown in orange.

Why does this ammonia matter? Well, ammonia is a good tracer of other relatively rare gases and fluids in the atmosphere…like water. Understanding the relative abundances of these materials helps us have a better idea of how and when Jupiter formed in the early solar system.

This instrument has also given us more information about Jupiter’s iconic belts and zones. Data suggest that the belt near Jupiter’s equator penetrates all the way down, while the belts and zones at other latitudes seem to evolve to other structures.

3. Stronger-Than-Expected Magnetic Field

Prior to Juno, it was known that Jupiter had the most intense magnetic field in the solar system…but measurements from Juno’s magnetometer investigation (MAG) indicate that the gas giant’s magnetic field is even stronger than models expected, and more irregular in shape.

At 7.766 Gauss, it is about 10 times stronger than the strongest magnetic field found on Earth! What is Gauss? Magnetic field strengths are measured in units called Gauss or Teslas. A magnetic field with a strength of 10,000 Gauss also has a strength of 1 Tesla.  

Juno is giving us a unique view of the magnetic field close to Jupiter that we’ve never had before. For example, data from the spacecraft (displayed in the graphic above) suggests that the planet’s magnetic field is “lumpy”, meaning its stronger in some places and weaker in others. This uneven distribution suggests that the field might be generated by dynamo action (where the motion of electrically conducting fluid creates a self-sustaining magnetic field) closer to the surface, above the layer of metallic hydrogen. Juno’s orbital track is illustrated with the black curve. 

4. Sounds of Jupiter

Juno also observed plasma wave signals from Jupiter’s ionosphere. This movie shows results from Juno’s radio wave detector that were recorded while it passed close to Jupiter. Waves in the plasma (the charged gas) in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter have different frequencies that depend on the types of ions present, and their densities. 

Mapping out these ions in the jovian system helps us understand how the upper atmosphere works including the aurora. Beyond the visual representation of the data, the data have been made into sounds where the frequencies
and playback speed have been shifted to be audible to human ears.

5. Jovian “Southern Lights”

The complexity and richness of Jupiter’s “southern lights” (also known as auroras) are on display in this animation of false-color maps from our Juno spacecraft. Auroras result when energetic electrons from the magnetosphere crash into the molecular hydrogen in the Jovian upper atmosphere. The data for this animation were obtained by Juno’s Ultraviolet Spectrograph. 

During Juno’s next flyby on July 11, the spacecraft will fly directly over one of the most iconic features in the entire solar system – one that every school kid knows – Jupiter’s Great Red Spot! If anybody is going to get to the bottom of what is going on below those mammoth swirling crimson cloud tops, it’s Juno.

Stay updated on all things Juno and Jupiter by following along on social media:
Twitter | Facebook | YouTube | Tumblr

Learn more about the Juno spacecraft and its mission at Jupiter HERE.

Cassini Spacecraft: Top Discoveries

Our Cassini spacecraft has been exploring Saturn, its stunning rings and its strange and beautiful moons for more than a decade.

Having expended almost every bit of the rocket propellant it carried to Saturn, operators are deliberately plunging Cassini into the planet to ensure Saturn’s moons will remain pristine for future exploration – in particular, the ice-covered, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus, but also Titan, with its intriguing pre-biotic chemistry.

Let’s take a look back at some of Cassini’s top discoveries:  

Titan

Under its shroud of haze, Saturn’s planet-sized moon Titan hides dunes, mountains of water ice and rivers and seas of liquid methane. Of the hundreds of moons in our solar system, Titan is the only one with a dense atmosphere and large liquid reservoirs on its surface, making it in some ways more like a terrestrial planet.

Both Earth and Titan have nitrogen-dominated atmospheres – over 95% nitrogen in Titan’s case. However, unlike Earth, Titan has very little oxygen; the rest of the atmosphere is mostly methane and traced amounts of other gases, including ethane.

There are three large seas, all located close to the moon’s north pole, surrounded by numerous smaller lakes in the northern hemisphere. Just one large lake has been found in the southern hemisphere.

Enceladus

The moon Enceladus conceals a global ocean of salty liquid water beneath its icy surface. Some of that water even shoots out into space, creating an immense plume!

For decades, scientists didn’t know why Enceladus was the brightest world in the solar system, or how it related to Saturn’s E ring. Cassini found that both the fresh coating on its surface, and icy material in the E ring originate from vents connected to a global subsurface saltwater ocean that might host hydrothermal vents.

With its global ocean, unique chemistry and internal heat, Enceladus has become a promising lead in our search for worlds where life could exist.

Iapetus

Saturn’s two-toned moon Iapetus gets its odd coloring from reddish dust in its orbital path that is swept up and lands on the leading face of the moon.

The most unique, and perhaps most remarkable feature discovered on Iapetus in Cassini images is a topographic ridge that coincides almost exactly with the geographic equator. The physical origin of the ridge has yet to be explained…

It is not yet year whether the ridge is a mountain belt that has folded upward, or an extensional crack in the surface through which material from inside Iapetus erupted onto the surface and accumulated locally.

Saturn’s Rings

Saturn’s rings are made of countless particles of ice and dust, which Saturn’s moons push and tug, creating gaps and waves.

Scientists have never before studied the size, temperature, composition and distribution of Saturn’s rings from Saturn obit. Cassini has captured extraordinary ring-moon interactions, observed the lowest ring-temperature ever recorded at Saturn, discovered that the moon Enceladus is the source for Saturn’s E ring, and viewed the rings at equinox when sunlight strikes the rings edge-on, revealing never-before-seen ring features and details.

Cassini also studied features in Saturn’s rings called “spokes,” which can be longer than the diameter of Earth. Scientists think they’re made of thin icy particles that are lifted by an electrostatic charge and only last a few hours.  

Auroras

The powerful magnetic field that permeates Saturn is strange because it lines up with the planet’s poles. But just like Earth’s field, it all creates shimmering auroras.

Auroras on Saturn occur in a process similar to Earth’s northern and southern lights. Particles from the solar wind are channeled by Saturn’s magnetic field toward the planet’s poles, where they interact with electrically charged gas (plasma) in the upper atmosphere and emit light.  

Turbulent Atmosphere

Saturn’s turbulent atmosphere churns with immense storms and a striking, six-sided jet stream near its north pole.

Saturn’s north and south poles are also each beautifully (and violently) decorated by a colossal swirling storm. Cassini got an up-close look at the north polar storm and scientists found that the storm’s eye was about 50 times wider than an Earth hurricane’s eye.

Unlike the Earth hurricanes that are driven by warm ocean waters, Saturn’s polar vortexes aren’t actually hurricanes. They’re hurricane-like though, and even contain lightning. Cassini’s instruments have ‘heard’ lightning ever since entering Saturn orbit in 2004, in the form of radio waves. But it wasn’t until 2009 that Cassini’s cameras captured images of Saturnian lighting for the first time.

Cassini scientists assembled a short video of it, the first video of lightning discharging on a planet other than Earth.

Cassini’s adventure will end soon because it’s almost out of fuel. So to avoid possibly ever contaminating moons like Enceladus or Titan, on Sept. 15 it will intentionally dive into Saturn’s atmosphere.

The spacecraft is expected to lose radio contact with Earth within about one to two minutes after beginning its decent into Saturn’s upper atmosphere. But on the way down, before contact is lost, eight of Cassini’s 12 science instruments will be operating! More details on the spacecraft’s final decent can be found HERE.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

youtube

Cockatoos use tools to make music

Cockatoos are already known for their wicked dance moves, but a new study reveals that they can create their own beat as well. Researchers observing 18 palm cockatoos (Probosciger aterrimus) in northern Australia discovered that, when courting a mate, male cockatoos grab a stick or a seedpod and start rhythmically whacking a hollow tree branch, producing a steady beat.

Voyager: The Spacecraft

The twin Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft are exploring where nothing from Earth has flown before. Continuing their more-than-40-year journey since their 1977 launches, they each are much farther away from Earth and the Sun than Pluto.

The primary mission was the exploration of Jupiter and Saturn. After making a string of discoveries there – such as active volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io and intricacies of Saturn’s rings – the mission was extended. 

Voyager 2 went on to explore Uranus and Neptune, and is still the only spacecraft to have visited those outer planets. The adventurers’ current mission, the Voyager Interstellar Mission (VIM), will explore the outermost edge of the Sun’s domain. And beyond.

Spacecraft Instruments

‘BUS’ Housing Electronics

The basic structure of the spacecraft is called the “bus,” which carries the various engineering subsystems and scientific instruments. It is like a large ten-sided box. Each of the ten sides of the bus contains a compartment (a bay) that houses various electronic assemblies.

Cosmic Ray Subsystem (CRS)

The Cosmic Ray Subsystem (CRS) looks only for very energetic particles in plasma, and has the highest sensitivity of the three particle detectors on the spacecraft. Very energetic particles can often be found in the intense radiation fields surrounding some planets (like Jupiter). Particles with the highest-known energies come from other stars. The CRS looks for both.

High-Gain Antenna (HGA)

The High-Gain Antenna (HGA) transmits data to Earth on two frequency channels (the downlink). One at about 8.4 gigahertz, is the X-band channel and contains science and engineering data. For comparison, the FM radio band is centered around 100 megahertz.

Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS)

The Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) is a modified version of the slow scan vidicon camera designed that were used in the earlier Mariner flights. The ISS consists of two television-type cameras, each with eight filters in a commandable Filter Wheel mounted in front of the vidicons. One has a low resolution 200 mm wide-angle lens, while the other uses a higher resolution 1500 mm narrow-angle lens.

Infrared Interferometer Spectrometer and Radiometer (IRIS)

The Infrared Interferometer Spectrometer and Radiometer (IRIS) actually acts as three separate instruments. First, it is a very sophisticated thermometer. It can determine the distribution of heat energy a body is emitting, allowing scientists to determine the temperature of that body or substance.

Second, the IRIS is a device that can determine when certain types of elements or compounds are present in an atmosphere or on a surface.

Third, it uses a separate radiometer to measure the total amount of sunlight reflected by a body at ultraviolet, visible and infrared frequencies.

Low-Energy Charged Particles (LECP)

The Low-Energy Charged Particles (LECP) looks for particles of higher energy than the Plasma Science instrument, and it overlaps with the Cosmic Ray Subsystem (CRS). It has the broadest energy range of the three sets of particle sensors. 

The LECP can be imagined as a piece of wood, with the particles of interest playing the role of the bullets. The faster a bullet moves, the deeper it will penetrate the wood. Thus, the depth of penetration measures the speed of the particles. The number of “bullet holes” over time indicates how many particles there are in various places in the solar wind, and at the various outer planets. The orientation of the wood indicates the direction from which the particles came.

Magnetometer (MAG)

Although the Magnetometer (MAG) can detect some of the effects of the solar wind on the outer planets and moons, its primary job is to measure changes in the Sun’s magnetic field with distance and time, to determine if each of the outer planets has a magnetic field, and how the moons and rings of the outer planets interact with those magnetic fields.

Optical Calibration Target
The target plate is a flat rectangle of known color and brightness, fixed to the spacecraft so the instruments on the movable scan platform (cameras, infrared instrument, etc.) can point to a predictable target for calibration purposes.

Photopolarimeter Subsystem (PPS)

The Photopolarimeter Subsystem (PPS) uses a 0.2 m telescope fitted with filters and polarization analyzers. The experiment is designed to determine the physical properties of particulate matter in the atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn and the rings of Saturn by measuring the intensity and linear polarization of scattered sunlight at eight wavelengths. 

The experiment also provided information on the texture and probable composition of the surfaces of the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn.

Planetary Radio Astronomy (PRA) and Plasma Wave Subsystem (PWS)

Two separate experiments, The Plasma Wave Subsystem and the Planetary Radio Astronomy experiment, share the two long antennas which stretch at right-angles to one another, forming a “V”.

Plasma Science (PLS)

The Plasma Science (PLS) instrument looks for the lowest-energy particles in plasma. It also has the ability to look for particles moving at particular speeds and, to a limited extent, to determine the direction from which they come. 

The Plasma Subsystem studies the properties of very hot ionized gases that exist in interplanetary regions. One plasma detector points in the direction of the Earth and the other points at a right angle to the first.

Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTG)

Three RTG units, electrically parallel-connected, are the central power sources for the mission module. The RTGs are mounted in tandem (end-to-end) on a deployable boom. The heat source radioisotopic fuel is Plutonium-238 in the form of the oxide Pu02. In the isotopic decay process, alpha particles are released which bombard the inner surface of the container. The energy released is converted to heat and is the source of heat to the thermoelectric converter.

Ultraviolet Spectrometer (UVS)

The Ultraviolet Spectrometer (UVS) is a very specialized type of light meter that is sensitive to ultraviolet light. It determines when certain atoms or ions are present, or when certain physical processes are going on. 

The instrument looks for specific colors of ultraviolet light that certain elements and compounds are known to emit.

Learn more about the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft HERE.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

Sounding Rocket Science in the Arctic

We sent three suborbital sounding rockets right into the auroras above Alaska on the evening of March 1 local time from the Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks, Alaska.  

Sounding rockets are suborbital rockets that fly up in an arc and immediately come back down, with a total flight time around 20 minutes. 

Though these rockets don’t fly fast enough to get into orbit around Earth, they still give us valuable information about the sun, space, and even Earth itself. Sounding rockets’ low-cost access to space is also ideal for testing instruments for future satellite missions.

Sounding rockets fly above most of Earth’s atmosphere, allowing them to see certain types of light – like extreme ultraviolet and X-rays – that don’t make it all the way to the ground because they are absorbed by the atmosphere. These kinds of light give us a unique view of the sun and processes in space.

The sun seen in extreme ultraviolet light by the Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite.

Of these three rockets, two were part of the Neutral Jets in Auroral Arcs mission, collecting data on winds influenced by the electric fields related to auroras. Sounding rockets are the perfect vehicle for this type of study, since they can fly directly through auroras – which exist in a region of Earth’s upper atmosphere too high for scientific balloons, but too low for satellites.

The third rocket that launched on March 1 was part of the ISINGLASS mission (short for Ionospheric Structuring: In Situ and Ground-based Low Altitude Studies). ISINGLASS included two rockets designed to launch into two different types of auroras in order to collect detailed data on their structure, with the hope of better understanding the processes that create auroras. The initial ISINGLASS rocket launched a few weeks earlier, on Feb. 22, also from the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska.

Auroras are caused when charged particles trapped in Earth’s vast magnetic field are sent raining down into the atmosphere, usually triggered by events on the sun that propagate out into space. 

Team members at the range had to wait until conditions were just right until they could launch – including winds, weather, and science conditions. Since these rockets were studying aurora, that means they had to wait until the sky was lit up with the Northern Lights.

Regions near the North and South Pole are best for studying the aurora, because the shape of Earth’s magnetic field naturally funnels aurora-causing particles near the poles. 

But launching sensitive instruments near the Arctic Circle in the winter has its own unique challenges. For example, rockets have to be insulated with foam or blankets every time they’re taken outside – including while on the launch pad – because of the extremely low temperatures.

For more information on sounding rockets, visit www.nasa.gov/soundingrockets.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

3

NASA’s Juno Spacecraft Completes Flyby over Jupiter’s Great Red Spot

NASA’s Juno mission completed a close flyby of Jupiter and its Great Red Spot on July 10, during its sixth science orbit.

All of Juno’s science instruments and the spacecraft’s JunoCam were operating during the flyby, collecting data that are now being returned to Earth. Juno’s next close flyby of Jupiter will occur on Sept. 1.

Raw images from the spacecraft’s latest flyby will be posted in coming days.

“For generations people from all over the world and all walks of life have marveled over the Great Red Spot,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Now we are finally going to see what this storm looks like up close and personal.”

The Great Red Spot is a 10,000-mile-wide (16,000-kilometer-wide) storm that has been monitored since 1830 and has possibly existed for more than 350 years. In modern times, the Great Red Spot has appeared to be shrinking.

Juno reached perijove (the point at which an orbit comes closest to Jupiter’s center) on July 10 at 6:55 p.m. PDT (9:55 p.m. EDT). At the time of perijove, Juno was about 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) above the planet’s cloud tops. Eleven minutes and 33 seconds later, Juno had covered another 24,713 miles (39,771 kilometers), and was passing directly above the coiling crimson cloud tops of the Great Red Spot.

The spacecraft passed about 5,600 miles (9,000 kilometers) above the clouds of this iconic feature.

On July 4 at 7:30 p.m. PDT (10:30 p.m. EDT), Juno logged exactly one year in Jupiter orbit, marking 71 million miles (114.5 million kilometers) of travel around the giant planet.

Juno launched on Aug. 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. During its mission of exploration, Juno soars low over the planet’s cloud tops – as close as about 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometers). During these flybys, Juno is probing beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and studying its auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.

Early science results from NASA’s Juno mission portray the largest planet in our solar system as a turbulent world, with an intriguingly complex interior structure, energetic polar aurora, and huge polar cyclones.

JPL manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute. The Juno mission is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the Science Mission Directorate.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. JPL is a division of Caltech in Pasadena

poll: what instrument do you play and what is your myers-briggs personality type respond here or in my inbox if you’d rather be anonymous- I’ve noticed patterns in some of the instrumentalists i follow and would like a larger sample size. I’m going to compile a list of the most common matches and see if there’s any general correlation. 

voice types welcome too! but for the sake of this- please only list your primary instrument.

The Start of Cassini’s Grand Finale

Cue drumroll…

For the first time ever, our Cassini spacecraft dove through the narrow gap between Saturn and its rings on April 26. At 5 a.m. EDT, Cassini crossed the ring plane with its science instruments turned on and collecting data. 

During this dive, the spacecraft was not in contact with Earth. The first opportunity to regain contact with the spacecraft is expected around 3 a.m. EDT on April 27.

This area between Saturn and its rings has never been explored by a spacecraft before. What we learn from these daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve.

So, you might be asking…how did this spacecraft maneuver its orbit between Saturn and its rings? Well…let us explain!

On April 22, Cassini made its 127th and final close approach to Saturn’s moon Titan. The flyby put the spacecraft on course for its dramatic last act, known as the Grand Finale. 

As the spacecraft passed over Titan, the moon’s gravity bent its path, reshaping the robotic probe’s orbit slightly so that instead of passing just outside Saturn’s main rings, Cassini would begin a series of 22 dives between the rings and the planet.

With this assist, Cassini received a large increase in velocity of approximately 1,925 mph with respect to Saturn.

This final chapter of exploration and discovery is in many ways like a brand-new mission. Twenty-two times, the Cassini spacecraft will dive through the unexplored space between Saturn and its rings. What we learn from these ultra-close passes over the planet could be some of the most exciting revelations ever returned by the long-lived spacecraft.

Throughout these daring maneuvers, updates will be posted on social media at:

@CassiniSaturn on Twitter
@NASAJPL on Twitter

Updates will also be available online at: https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/grand-finale/milestones/ 

Follow along with us during this mission’s Grand Finale!

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

ID #76893

Name: Zoe
Age: 16
Country: United States

Hey! I like music, reading and anything forensic science related. Im pretty introverted and come off as very shy, but I swear I’m kind of interesting.
As far as music goes I play cello and ukulele, I love all instruments. I especially enjoy percussion. For listening to music I like pretty much everything (minus country, I know, I know what a shock) some of my favorites include twenty one pilots
The front bottoms
Real friends
The 1975
Jon bellion
Blackbear
Halsey
It is mostly a mix of a lot of different artists, I am open to listening to new things all the time!
I read all the timeee. My favorites are things like Harry Potter, the mortal instruments, to kill a mockingbird, lord of the flies, all the bright places and the host. I have read much more then this but it is a pretty good start.
As far as forensic science goes, serial killers just intrigue me. I like learning about them and what they did. While I do not condone it, it certainly is a very interesting topic. I want to major in forensic science in college actually!! I know a lot of random creepy facts, so that’s a plus of talking to me!!
I have Snapchat, instagram, kik and of course tumblr!!

Preferences: I would like people 15+ but other then that, as long as you are a not racist or transphobic or anything of the like everything should be all good!!

youtube

This is a cat playing a theremin, also known as the ‘oooOOOOoooo’ instrument from mid-20th-century science fiction movies and TV.

You’re welcome.

The Past, Present and Future of Exploration on Mars

Today, we’re celebrating the Red Planet! Since our first close-up picture of Mars in 1965, spacecraft voyages to the Red Planet have revealed a world strangely familiar, yet different enough to challenge our perceptions of what makes a planet work.

You’d think Mars would be easier to understand. Like Earth, Mars has polar ice caps and clouds in its atmosphere, seasonal weather patterns, volcanoes, canyons and other recognizable features. However, conditions on Mars vary wildly from what we know on our own planet.

Join us as we highlight some of the exploration on Mars from the past, present and future:

PAST

Viking Landers

Our Viking Project found a place in history when it became the first U.S. mission to land a spacecraft safely on the surface of Mars and return images of the surface. Two identical spacecraft, each consisting of a lander and an orbiter, were built. Each orbiter-lander pair flew together and entered Mars orbit; the landers then separated and descended to the planet’s surface.

Besides taking photographs and collecting other science data, the two landers conducted three biology experiments designed to look for possible signs of life.

Pathfinder Rover

In 1997, Pathfinder was the first-ever robotic rover to land on the surface of Mars. It was designed as a technology demonstration of a new way to deliver an instrumented lander to the surface of a planet. Mars Pathfinder used an innovative method of directly entering the Martian atmosphere, assisted by a parachute to slow its descent and a giant system of airbags to cushion the impact.

Pathfinder not only accomplished its goal but also returned an unprecedented amount of data and outlived its primary design life.

PRESENT

Spirit and Opportunity

In January 2004, two robotic geologists named Spirit and Opportunity landed on opposite sides of the Red Planet. With far greater mobility than the 1997 Mars Pathfinder rover, these robotic explorers have trekked for miles across the Martian surface, conducting field geology and making atmospheric observations. Carrying identical, sophisticated sets of science instruments, both rovers have found evidence of ancient Martian environments where intermittently wet and habitable conditions existed.

Both missions exceeded their planned 90-day mission lifetimes by many years. Spirit lasted 20 times longer than its original design until its final communication to Earth on March 22, 2010. Opportunity continues to operate more than a decade after launch.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter left Earth in 2005 on a search for evidence that water persisted on the surface of Mars for a long period of time. While other Mars missions have shown that water flowed across the surface in Mars’ history, it remained a mystery whether water was ever around long enough to provide a habitat for life.

In addition to using the rover to study Mars, we’re using data and imagery from this mission to survey possible future human landing sites on the Red Planet.

Curiosity

The Curiosity rover is the largest and most capable rover ever sent to Mars. It launched November 26, 2011 and landed on Mars on Aug. 5, 2012. Curiosity set out to answer the question: Did Mars ever have the right environmental conditions to support small life forms called microbes? 

Early in its mission, Curiosity’s scientific tools found chemical and mineral evidence of past habitable environments on Mars. It continues to explore the rock record from a time when Mars could have been home to microbial life.

FUTURE

Space Launch System Rocket

We’re currently building the world’s most powerful rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). When completed, this rocket will enable astronauts to begin their journey to explore destinations far into the solar system, including Mars.

Orion Spacecraft

The Orion spacecraft will sit atop the Space Launch System rocket as it launches humans deeper into space than ever before. Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.

Mars 2020

The Mars 2020 rover mission takes the next step in exploration of the Red Planet by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself.

The Mars 2020 rover introduces a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils and set them aside in a “cache” on the surface of Mars. The mission will also test a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identify other resources (such as subsurface water), improve landing techniques and characterize weather, dust and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on the Red Planet.

For decades, we’ve sent orbiters, landers and rovers, dramatically increasing our knowledge about the Red Planet and paving the way for future human explorers. Mars is the next tangible frontier for human exploration, and it’s an achievable goal. There are challenges to pioneering Mars, but we know they are solvable. 

To discover more about Mars exploration, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/topics/journeytomars/index.html

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com