Mission’s end for “Oppy”

Opportunity's Tracks on Mars - Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Opportunity’s Tracks on Mars – Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

February 12, 2019 — One of the most successful and enduring feats of interplanetary exploration, NASA’s Opportunity rover mission is at an end after almost 15 years exploring the surface of Mars and helping lay the groundwork for NASA’s return to the Red Planet.

The Opportunity rover stopped communicating with Earth when a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location in June 2018. After more than a thousand commands to restore contact, engineers in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made their last attempt to revive Opportunity Tuesday, to no avail. The solar-powered rover’s final communication was received June 10.

“It is because of trailblazing missions such as Opportunity that there will come a day when our brave astronauts walk on the surface of Mars,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “And when that day arrives, some portion of that first footprint will be owned by the men and women of Opportunity, and a little rover that defied the odds and did so much in the name of exploration.”

Artist's Concept: Spirit & Opportunity Mars Rovers. Image Credit: NASA
Artist’s Concept: Spirit & Opportunity Mars Rovers. Image Credit: NASA

Designed to last just 90 Martian days and travel 1,100 yards (1,000 meters), Opportunity vastly surpassed all expectations in its endurance, scientific value and longevity. In addition to exceeding its life expectancy by 60 times, the rover traveled more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) by the time it reached its most appropriate final resting spot on Mars – “Perseverance Valley.”

“For more than a decade, Opportunity has been an icon in the field of planetary exploration, teaching us about Mars’ ancient past as a wet, potentially habitable planet, and revealing uncharted Martian landscapes,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Whatever loss we feel now must be tempered with the knowledge that the legacy of Opportunity continues – both on the surface of Mars with the Curiosity rover and InSight lander – and in the clean rooms of JPL, where the upcoming Mars 2020 rover is taking shape.”

Click here for more on NASA’s Mars rovers!

InSight Mars lander’s first “selfie”

 Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This is NASA InSight’s first selfie on Mars. It displays the lander’s solar panels and deck. On top of the deck are its science instruments, weather sensor booms and UHF antenna. The spacecraft used a camera on its robotic arm to take its first selfie – a mosaic made up of 11 images. This is the same imaging process used by NASA’s Curiosity rover mission, in which many overlapping pictures are taken and later stitched together. Visible in the selfie are the lander’s solar panel and its entire deck, including its science instruments. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For the latest news and much more information on the InSight lander’s mission and science, click here!

2018 Perseids meteor shower

Photo: Perseids Composite: Images combined to show 22 meteors viewed from Salt Fork State Park, Ohio. Photo Credit: Frank Shoemaker.
Perseids Composite: Images combined to show 22 meteors and radiant direction, viewed from Salt Fork State Park, Ohio. Photo Credit: Frank Shoemaker.

Note: This post will be updated with additional photos and narrative as provided by CAA members.

The 2018 occurrence of the annual Perseids meteor shower was not particularly outstanding but among sky watchers the event’s timing offered some promise; it peaked on a weekend and Earth’s Moon offered no interference! Overall, members enjoyed the experience but were not impressed by the Perseids’ performance!

A few intrepid members of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA) spent late nights into early mornings at darker sites around the area ranging from Observatory Park in Geauga County, to Letha House Park in Medina County, Findley State Park in Lorain County, and Salt Fork State Park in Guernsey County.

Photo: The night wasn't stellar Saturday for the 2018 Perseids Meteor Shower as viewed from Letha House Park West, Medina County. This fisheye view of observers leaving at 12:35 AM. Photo Credit: James Guilford.
The night wasn’t stellar Saturday for the 2018 Perseids Meteor Shower as viewed from Letha House Park West, Medina County, as clouds and light pollution hindered observations. This fisheye view of observers leaving at 12:35 AM. Photo Credit: James Guilford.

Saturday night observers were largely frustrated by clouds moving over the Northern Ohio area though some did report seeing meteors. The passing clouds were illuminated not only by city light pollution but also by flashes of lightning from thunderstorms over Lake Erie!

Member Lonnie Dittrick, out Saturday night, reported, “Spent about 2.5 hours out near Wellington and snagged 23 meteors (about 1 every 9.6 minutes). Conditions fair with lots of high clouds and a cloud-out for 30 minutes. Reoccurring lighting north over the lake. Three very bright shooters that left trails. 11:10 to 1:40 AM.”

Joining the crowd at Observatory Park, Nancy Whisler wrote, “We counted 34 up until midnight, then we left because it was getting so cloudy and moist. We had a great time!

Some folks tried watching from their own back yards. “Stayed home in Brunswick on my backyard patio Saturday night and Sunday,” wrote Jon Salontay. “Saturday started out with promising skies and weather but the sky got very hazy and smoky early and cloudy later. Saw only one sporadic meteor around midnight and didn’t catch any with my camera. Limiting magnitude was at best 3rd magnitude, probably 2nd. Sunday night saw better conditions; much darker and clearer.”

“Saw only two Perseids though: one early at 11:30 PM, and another around 4 AM, in an early and later session. Three meteors, in two days, in five hours observing.” Reflecting the feelings of many observers, Salontay concluded, “I’ve had better nights.”

Watching from his home’s deck in Brunswick Hills, Matt Franduto wrote, “The last two nights (2 – 3:00 AM) have been awful. Zero on Friday. Three (Saturday) night.”

Sunday night, inconvenient for many due to Monday work schedules, offered better skies and a nice selection of fireballs (exceptionally bright meteors) in addition to more ordinary “shooting stars.”

Watching the sky from “the lovely skies of North Olmsted,” was Steve Korylak. “I took about 200 15-second exposures covering Cygnus and Cassiopeia starting at 1:30 AM and caught not 0ne. However the next half-hour I saw three Perseids and four sporadics. Some shower, more like a drizzle!”

Photo: Sword of Mars: A Perseid fireball meteor streaks past the brilliant planet Mars in the skies over Findley State Park, Wellington, August 12, 2018, 1:03 AM. Photo Credit: James Guilford.
Sword of Mars: A Perseid fireball meteor streaks past the brilliant planet Mars in the skies over Findley State Park, Wellington, August 12, 2018, 1:03 AM. Photo Credit: James Guilford.

From Findley State Park, James Guilford watched and photographed from twilight until 1:30 AM Saturday to Sunday. He did not keep count as photography was his main interest. “I saw a few dim Perseids and several fireballs and captured one as it passed Mars,” he wrote. “The main problem became dew; one after another the camera lenses fogged up and I had to keep swapping them out. The camera and tripod were dripping wet by the time I had to call it quits!”

Dark skies matter when it comes to spotting meteors. Member Frank Shoemaker, who went to Salt Fork, reported, “My daughter and I went down to Salt Fork state park and were out from 11:30 PM to 4:30 AM on Sunday night/Monday morning. The clouds completely cleared out about 1:30 AM and we eventually lost count of Perseids in the 70s. I think we saw at least 80 of them.” That was a good night! See his composite photo at top of this story.

Photo: Singular Streak: A close-up view of a Perseid as it passed through constellation Cassiopeia Sunday morning. Photo Credit: John D. Burkett.
Singular Streak: A close-up view of a Perseid as it passed through constellation Cassiopeia Sunday morning. Photo Credit: John D. Burkett.

Member John Burkett took a different approach in making his meteoric image: as an experiment he attached cameras to a CGEM which tracked with background stars. The image above was produced from a Nikon D810, Nikon 35mm f/1.4 @ f/4, ISO-200, single-frame 76-Seconds, cropped. It was just below and to the right of the big “W”. He was three miles out of Seville, time stamp is 5:29 AM.


Ancient organic material, mysterious methane on Mars

This low-angle self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called "Buckskin" on lower Mount Sharp. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This low-angle self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called “Buckskin” on lower Mount Sharp. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

From a NASA News Release

NASA’s Curiosity rover has found new evidence preserved in rocks on Mars that suggests the planet could have supported ancient life, as well as new evidence in the Martian atmosphere that relates to the search for current life on the Red Planet. While not necessarily evidence of life itself, these findings are a good sign for future missions exploring the planet’s surface and subsurface.

The new findings – “tough” organic molecules in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface, as well as seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere – appear in the June 8 edition of the journal Science.

Organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen, and also may include oxygen, nitrogen and other elements. While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life.

“With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington. “I’m confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet.”

“Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules,” said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who is lead author of one of the two new Science papers. “Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes.”

Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water – an essential ingredient for life as we know it – to pool at the surface. Data from Curiosity reveal that billions of years ago, a water lake inside Gale Crater held all the ingredients necessary for life, including chemical building blocks and energy sources.

“The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space. Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter,” said Eigenbrode. “Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimeters of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable, bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper.”

Seasonal Methane Releases

In the second paper, scientists describe the discovery of seasonal variations in methane in the Martian atmosphere over the course of nearly three Mars years, which is almost six Earth years. This variation was detected by Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite.

Water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists cannot rule out the possibility of biological origins. Methane previously had been detected in Mars’ atmosphere in large, unpredictable plumes. This new result shows that low levels of methane within Gale Crater repeatedly peak in warm, summer months and drop in the winter every year.

“This is the first time we’ve seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it,” said Chris Webster of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, lead author of the second paper. “This is all possible because of Curiosity’s longevity. The long duration has allowed us to see the patterns in this seasonal ‘breathing.'”

Finding Organic Molecules

To identify organic material in the Martian soil, Curiosity drilled into sedimentary rocks known as mudstone from four areas in Gale Crater. This mudstone gradually formed billions of years ago from silt that accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake. The rock samples were analyzed by SAM, which uses an oven to heat the samples (in excess of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, or 500 degrees Celsius) to release organic molecules from the powdered rock.

SAM measured small organic molecules that came off the mudstone sample – fragments of larger organic molecules that don’t vaporize easily. Some of these fragments contain sulfur, which could have helped preserve them in the same way sulfur is used to make car tires more durable, according to Eigenbrode.

The results also indicate organic carbon concentrations on the order of 10 parts per million or more. This is close to the amount observed in Martian meteorites and about 100 times greater than prior detections of organic carbon on Mars’ surface. Some of the molecules identified include thiophenes, benzene, toluene, and small carbon chains, such as propane or butene.

In 2013, SAM detected some organic molecules containing chlorine in rocks at the deepest point in the crater. This new discovery builds on the inventory of molecules detected in the ancient lake sediments on Mars and helps explains why they were preserved.

Finding methane in the atmosphere and ancient carbon preserved on the surface gives scientists confidence that NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and ESA’s (European Space Agency’s) ExoMars rover will find even more organics, both on the surface and in the shallow subsurface.

These results also inform scientists’ decisions as they work to find answers to questions concerning the possibility of life on Mars.

“Are there signs of life on Mars?” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, at NASA Headquarters. “We don’t know, but these results tell us we are on the right track.”

This work was funded by NASA’s Mars Exploration Program for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) in Washington. Goddard provided the SAM instrument. JPL built the rover and manages the project for SMD.

April Meeting: The Martians are Coming!

Image: Henrique Alvim Corrêa Illustration
Henrique Alvim Corrêa Illustration

The regular monthly membership meeting of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association will take place Monday, April 10, beginning at 7:30. Meetings take place at the Rocky River Nature Center; 24000 Valley Parkway; North Olmsted, Ohio, in the Cleveland Metroparks.

“The Martians are Coming! – Astronomical Hoaxes and Panics.” CAA member Steve Gallant will discuss some of the great astronomical hoaxes, including the famous Orson Welles “WAR OF THE WORLDS” radio broadcast of 1938!

Following the presentation, the business portion of the meeting will convene. If Martians have not overrun the auditorium, inciting panic by then.

Public Observing Saturday, August 6

The Cuyahoga Astronomical Association’s (CAA’s) observatory at Letha House Park will be open for public observing Saturday, August 6, from 8:30 to 11:00 PM. Visitors will be treated to telescopic views of the Moon (early), Saturn, and as the sky darkens, deep sky objects such as star clusters. Mars may also be viewed but is becoming more distant from Earth and offers less detail to viewers. Click here for our observatory’s web page for information on how to get to the observatory and advice on attending a star party.

The observatory is operated in cooperation with the Medina County Park District (which owns the property). Restroom facilities are available at the park and, in the event of cloudy or inclement weather, an indoor astronomy program will be offered in place of outdoor observing.