Mission Update: Mars and the Moon – Sky and Telescope

Perseverance on Mars

This raw image is from one of Perseverance’s hazard avoidance cameras.

NASA’s Perseverance rover and its tagalong helicopter, Ingenuity, have been on Mars for just over an Earth year now. During this time, the rover traveled nearly 5 kilometers (3 miles) through Jezero Crater, returning on a V-shaped trajectory. Its route took it along the boundary of two sections of the crater floor : Séítah, an older formation with rocks rich in olivine grains, and Máaz, a slightly younger formation, without olivine, which has rounded edges in the shape of an overturned sausage (the technical term for this is lobe).

The rover scraped off six boulders, revealing intricate, grainy textures beneath the worn surfaces. Samples stored at these sites – six cores of rock and one (by mistake) of nothing but Martian air – will one day be brought back to Earth for detailed analysis.

Observations of these rocks and others along the path of Perseverance indicate that Séítah and Máaz are igneous, formed by molten rock that has slowly cooled, said Vivian Sun (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) during her general presentation March 7 at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. It remains unclear if the formations are specifically of volcanic origin (they could be impact melting, for example), or how Máaz is related to Séítah. Prior to the arrival of the rover, original hypotheses included both igneous and sedimentary processes.

Perseverance and ingenuity
This map shows the paths taken by the Perseverance rover (white) and the Ingenuity helicopter (gold) to date; circles indicate waypoints. Visit Where is the perseverance? to see where they are now.)

The Perseverance team also used one of the two microphones aboard the rover – the first to successfully land on Mars – to measure the speed of sound on the red planet: 240 meters per second (540 mph), a little less than the speed of earth sound of 760 mph.

The extremely thin carbon dioxide-based Martian atmosphere leads to what Baptist Chide (Los Alamos National Lab) and his team call “a unique listening experience”, as frequencies above 240 MHz travel at 10 m/s , which means that treble sounds will arrive earlier than bass. (Not that astronauts would take their suits off long enough to notice!)

Ingenuity, the Mars helicopter

Ingenuity Helicopter
Ingenuity (circled in red) at Airfield J, just north of the southern ridge of the Séíitah formation.

Meanwhile, Ingenuity, the little tech demo that could, is delighting team members. After proving that powered flight on Mars is possible, the helicopter spends its time searching for the rover, identifying safe crossings and rocks of interest.

“I was really impressed with how well it worked and how useful it was,” said Justin Simon (NASA Johnson Space Center).

The helicopter cannot venture far, because it communicates with the Earth via the rover, explained Matt Golombek (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) during a virtual roundtable with the press. Its longest flight was 630 meters (about 2,000 feet). The helicopter’s flights have become more efficient, however, as it no longer needs to scout new airfields before landing.

Even after several months and a dust storm, Ingenuity shows no signs of wear and tear, Golombek said: the dust hasn’t bothered its solar panels (likely because it’s flying), and the only change in performance is that he can’t fly as well. away because atmospheric pressure drops with the seasons.

Perseverance will take more samples in the next week, then set out to explore the ancient Jezero Delta.

Zhurong: the Chinese rover on Mars

zhurong selfie
A self-portrait of Zhurong and his landing pad on Mars. CNSA

Elsewhere on Mars, the Chinese Zhurong rover, which arrived with the Tianwen 1 mission launched in 2020, has been rolling since May 2021. It is exploring Utopia Planitia, a large flat plain in the planet’s northern hemisphere. Scientists have interpreted the surface the rover is now rolling over as sediment left over from lakes, rivers or even an ancient ocean.

The main objective of the mission is engineering, to commission and test an orbiter, lander and rover in a single package. But Zhurong also carries six science payloads, and the team used some of these instruments to study interesting soils, rocks, ridges and craters along the way. In particular, they report several ridges near the rover’s path. The wind shaped these crescent-shaped ripples. But after combining data from the rover with orbital images, the team surmised that these features were dusty, suggesting that whatever wind shaped it has since died down. These and other results are published in natural astronomy and were also presented at the LPSC.

Thanks to the extremely flat terrain, the rover could continue to cover long distances. Indeed, it has already survived its primary mission by 90 sols (92 days). Zhurong will continue to examine interesting features along his journey to what could have been the shore of an ancient ocean.

Chang’e 5: Lunar Sample Return

Rectified version of the Chang'e 5 panorama
This is an edited version of the panorama of the landing site taken by the cameras aboard Chang’e 5.
CNSA / CLEP / Don Davis

The Chang’e 5 mission, launched in late 2020, carried out a rapid round-trip mission to the Moon and back, taking less than a month to return 1.7 kilograms of lunar soil to Earth. Now, members of the Chang’e 5 team and others who analyzed the fragments have presented their findings at the ongoing Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC).

Chang’e 5 landed in the northern part of Oceanus Procellarum, which was already known to have hosted the most recent volcanic eruptions on the Moon. Indeed, the samples collected indicate a volcanic origin, probably a single eruption that occurred some 2 billion years ago. Based on analysis of the sample, this eruption drew magma from the shallow mantle not too far below the surface. The samples will ultimately help scientists understand how the Moon has cooled over time.

Meanwhile, a spectrometer aboard the lander made the first-ever in situ detection of water on the lunar surface. (Technically, what the instrument detected was the 2.85 micron absorption line indicating the presence of hydroxyl groups, usually associated with water.)

Interactions between solar wind particles and lunar regolith likely created the water, although it should be noted that it is probably chemically bonded – otherwise it would not have remained, unlike the water ice that would exist. in permanently shadowed craters at the Moon’s poles. The detection of Chang’e 5 confirms studies in orbit suggesting that water could, in one form or another, survive on the day side of the Moon.

…And more

Other missions are continuing elsewhere on and around Mars: the United Arab Emirates’ Hope Probe is transmitting global data to the Red Planet. And the Insight lander’s SEIS instrument continues to collect seismic data, now at 1,300 shaking and counting. Most are detected at night, when the atmosphere is calmer and less wind shakes the SEIS box. The vast majority of them (1,100) are nearby, noted as high frequency earthquakes. But two were stronger, with magnitudes of 4.1 and 4.2, respectively. These could help inform models of the Martian core.

Camille M. Carlisle and Monica Young contributed reporting.


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