Mars is the “Red Planet” for a very good reason: its surface is made of a thick layer of oxidized iron dust and rocks of the same color. Maybe another name for Mars could be “Rusty.” But the ruddy surface does not tell the whole story of the composition of this world.
The dust that covers the surface of Mars is fine like talcum powder. Beneath the layer of dust, the Martian crust consists mostly of volcanic basalt rock. The soil of Mars also holds nutrients such as sodium, potassium, chloride and magnesium. The crust is about 30 miles (50 kilometers) thick.
Mars’ crust is thought to be one piece. Unlike Earth, the red planet has no tectonic plates that ride on the mantle to reshape the terrain. Since there is little to no movement in the crust, molten rock flowed to the surface at the same point for successive eruptions, building up into the huge volcanoes that dot the Martian surface.
Dusty, glass-rich sand dunes like these found just south of the north polar ice cap could cover much of Mars. (False color image)
Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
That doesn’t mean the crust sits quietly. New research has found that powerful landslides may speed down Martian slopes at up to 450 mph (725 km/h).
“The calculated velocity of landslides (often well in excess of 100 m/s and up to 200 m/s at peak) compares well with velocity estimates based on the run-up of the landslides on mounds,” researchers wrote in a study published in The European Physical Journal Plus.
“We conclude that ice may have been an important medium of lubrication of landslides on Mars, even in equatorial areas like Valles Marineris” (the Grand Canyon of Mars).
Any life that ever existed on Mars would have had to cope with the radiation, perhaps by thriving underground. While astronomers continue to search for past or present signs of biology on Mars, no convincing evidence has yet been found.
Mantle and core
Evidence suggests there have been no volcanic eruptions for millions of years, however. The mantle that lies beneath the crust is largely dormant. It is made up primarily of silicon, oxygen, iron, and magnesium and probably has the consistency of soft rocky paste. It is probably about 900 to 1,200 miles (5,400 to 7,200 kilometers) thick, scientists say.
The center of Mars likely has a solid core composed of iron, nickel and sulfur. It is estimated to be between 1,800 and 2,400 miles (3,000 and 4,000 kilometers) in diameter. The core does not move, and therefore Mars lacks a planet-wide magnetic field. Instead, it has sporadic field lines that scientists have nicknamed “Christmas Lights.” Without a global magnetic field, radiation bombards the planet making it relatively inhospitable compared to Earth. [Infographic: Inside Planet Mars]
Water and atmosphere
Mars is too cold for liquid water to exist for any length of time, but features on the surface suggest that water once flowed on Mars. Today, water exists in the form of ice in the soil, and in sheets of ice in the polar ice caps. The average temperature is about minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 60 degrees Celsius), although they can vary from minus 195 degrees F (minus 125 degrees C) near the poles during the winter to as much as 70 degrees F (20 degrees C) at midday near the equator.
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped this photo of a dust devil on the Red Planet on Feb. 16, 2012.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
The atmosphere of Mars is too thin to easily support life as we know it. It is about 95 percent carbon dioxide. The extremely thin air on Mars can also become very dusty. Dust from the planet’s surface is routinely kicked up into the atmosphere by giant dust devils— not unlike tornadoes on Earth. At times, the red planet can be partly or wholly consumed by dust storms.
At times, it even snows on Mars. The Martian snowflakes, made of carbon dioxide rather than water, are thought to be about the size of red blood cells. Flakes in the north measure between 8 to 22 microns and those in the south are just 4 to 13 microns.
Although the surface of Mars today is inhospitable for life as we know it, planetary scientists are finding signs that suggest the world may have been hospitable in the past. For instance, NASA’s Curiosity rover discovered the element boron, which plays a role in stabilizing sugars needed to make RNA, a key for life.
“Because borates may play an important role in making RNA — one of the building blocks of life — finding boron on Mars further opens the possibility that life could have once arisen on the planet,” Patrick Gasda, a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico and lead author of the study, said in a statement.
“Essentially, this tells us that the conditions from which life could have potentially grown may have existed on ancient Mars, independent from Earth.”
Additional reporting by Nola Taylor Redd, Space.com contributor
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Mars Meteorite Will Return to the Red Planet with NASA Rover
Rohit Bhartia of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission holds a slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars. This slice will likely be used here on Earth for testing a laser instrument for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover; a separate slice will go to Mars on the rover.
A chunk of rock that was once part of Mars, but landed on Earth as a meteorite, will return to the Red Planet aboard a NASA rover set to launch in 2020.
The meteorite, known as Sayh al Uhaymir 008 (SaU008) was found in Oman in 1999, but geologists determined that it likely originated on Mars, according to a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Scientists think collisions between Mars and other large bodies in the solar system’s early days sent chunks of the Red Planet into space, where they might wander for eons before falling onto Earth’s surface.
Now, NASA scientists are using the meteorite to calibrate an instrument that will fly on the Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled to drop down on the Red Planet’s surface and collect rock samples that could one day be returned to Earth. One of the rover’s main goals is to evaluate the potential habitability of ancient and present-day Mars. [How NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover Will Work (Infographic)]
The meteorite is being used to calibrate an instrument called the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals), which will use techniques often used in forensic science to identify chemicals in the Martian rock samples, in features as thin as a human hair.
A close-up of a meteorite that likely came from Mars.
The researchers will study the meteorite on Earth, where they are able to make sure their instruments are producing a correct analysis of the rock, and understand what features of the rock are perceptible to their instruments. When the rover settles onto Mars, researchers can once again use the rock to make sure their instruments are working as they should be, before pointing them at features of the Martian surface.
“We’re studying things on such a fine scale that slight misalignments, caused by changes in temperature or even the rover settling into sand, can require us to correct our aim,” said Luther Beegle, principal investigator for SHERLOC, in the statement. “By studying how the instrument sees a fixed target, we can understand how it will see a piece of the Martian surface.”
There are only about 200 confirmed Martian meteorites that have been found on Earth, according to the statement. The SaU008 meteorite comes from London’s Natural History Museum, which lends out hundreds of meteorites (most of them not from Mars) every year for scientific studies. The SHERLOC team needed a Martian meteorite that was robust enough to endure the journey to Mars without flaking or crumbling. (Launch from Earth and entry into the Martian atmosphere are both very strenuous events for everything on board.) The rock also “needed to possess certain chemical features to test SHERLOC’s sensitivity. These had to be reasonably easy to detect repeatedly for the calibration target to be useful,” according to the statement.
A slice of a Martian meteorite undergoes oxygen cleaning to remove organics. This slice will remain on Earth to be used for testing and calibrating instruments.
Usually, instruments like SHERLOC are calibrated with a variety of materials including rock, metal and glass. And Mars meteorites have been used for instrument calibration in the past. In fact, another instrument aboard the Mars 2020 rover, called SuperCam, will be adding a Mars meteorite to NASA’s calibration target, according to the statement. And while this would be the first Mars meteorite to return to the surface of the Red Planet, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, which orbits the Red Planet, carries a chunk of a Martian meteorite.
SHERLOC will carry other materials from Earth in addition to Su008, including materials that could be used to make a spacesuit for use on Mars. Observations of how the material withstands the radiation, atmosphere and temperature variations on Mars will provide valuable information for possible crewed trips to the Red Planet.
“The SHERLOC instrument is a valuable opportunity to prepare for human spaceflight as well as to perform fundamental scientific investigations of the Martian surface,” Marc Fries, a SHERLOC co-investigator and curator of extraterrestrial materials at Johnson Space Center, said in the statement. “It gives us a convenient way to test material that will keep future astronauts safe when they get to Mars.”
Kepler Space Telescope Discovers 95 More Alien Planets
Planets around other stars are the rule rather than the exception, and there are likely hundreds of billions of exoplanets in the Milky Way alone. NASA’s Kepler space telescope has found more than 2,400 alien worlds, including a new haul of 95 planets announced on Feb. 15, 2018.
The exoplanet discoveries by NASA’s Kepler space telescope keep rolling in.
Astronomers poring through data gathered during Kepler’s current extended mission, known as K2, have spotted 95 more alien planets, a new study reports.
That brings the K2 tally to 292, and the total haul over Kepler’s entire operational life to nearly 2,440 — about two-thirds of all the alien worlds ever discovered. And more than 2,000 additional Kepler candidates await confirmation by follow-up observations or analysis. [7 Greatest Exoplanet Discoveries by NASA’s Kepler (So Far)]
Kepler launched in March 2009, on a mission to help scientists determine just how common rocky, potentially habitable worlds such as Earth are throughout the Milky Way. For four years, the spacecraft stared continuously at about 150,000 stars, looking for tiny dips in their brightness caused by the passage of planets across their faces.
This work was highly productive, as noted above. But in May 2013, the second of Kepler’s four orientation-maintaining “reaction wheels” failed, and the spacecraft lost its superprecise pointing ability, bringing the original mission to a close.
But mission managers figured out a way to stabilize Kepler using sunlight pressure, and the spacecraft soon embarked on its K2 mission, which involves exoplanet hunting on a more limited basis, as well as observing comets and asteroids in our own solar system, supernovas and a range of other objects and phenomena.
For the new study, researchers analyzed K2 data going all the way back to 2014, zeroing in on 275 “candidate” signals.
“We found that some of the signals were caused by multiple star systems or noise from the spacecraft,” study lead author Andrew Mayo, a Ph.D. student at the Technical University of Denmark’s National Space Institute, said in a statement. “But we also detected planets that range from sub-Earth-sized to the size of Jupiter and larger.”
Indeed, 149 of the signals turned out to be caused by bona fide exoplanets, 95 of which are new discoveries. And one of the new ones is a record setter.
“We validated a planet on a 10-day orbit around a star called HD 212657, which is now the brightest star found by either the Kepler or K2 missions to host a validated planet,” Mayo said. “Planets around bright stars are important because astronomers can learn a lot about them from ground-based observatories.”
The new study was published today (Feb. 15) in The Astronomical Journal.
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