5 things you may not already know about the “Water on Mars” story

There has been quite a lot of excitement recently in the planetary sciences. If you haven’t already heard (if not, where have you been!?), it has now been confirmed that liquid water flows on the surface of Mars – this is almost old news now with the speed things travel on the internet!

This discovery is so new and exciting as they believe water is actually liquid and flowing on the surface of the planet, right now. We’ve known for a while that water exists on Mars, frozen in its ice caps, and we’ve also known that water once flowed but has since evaporated, but flowing water today is new.

Continue reading “5 things you may not already know about the “Water on Mars” story”

Sledding down sand dunes on surfboards made of dry ice, on Mars

By Nick,

Its been a busy week for Martian discoveries. And all of the stories here are from the Martian geologists that aren’t Curiosity. Remember Opportunity, a rover that landed on the red planet, over nine years ago. Well, despite its initial 90 martian day working lifespan, after 3300 martian days it’s still running, and still producing some great new science.

With all of Curiosity’s success in finding clues as to past water on Mars, Opportunity has discovered this rock, called Esperance. It has lower calcium and iron than any other rock so far analysed by the rover, and far higher quantities of aluminium and silica. Chemically, this means its highly likely to be a clay rich rock. And clay rich rocks can only form where there is high pH (ie. not acid) water.

Opportunity meanwhile, is off on a 2.2km trek for some winter sun, moving 25m on its first day as it trundles off in search of more science!

The pale rock in the middle of the image is believed to contain clays. Image: Nasa/JPL/Caltech/Cornell/ArizonaState
The pale rock in the middle of the image is believed to contain clays.
Image: Nasa/JPL/Caltech/Cornell/ArizonaState

But its not just the old rover’s that continue to function, the satellites are producing some stunning results and images of their own.

Continue reading “Sledding down sand dunes on surfboards made of dry ice, on Mars”

The argument for life on Mars strengthens

This image from NASA's Curiosity rover shows the first sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover's drill. The image was taken after the sample was transferred from the drill to the rover's scoop. In planned subsequent steps, the sample will be sieved, and portions of it delivered to the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument.
This image from NASA’s Curiosity rover shows the first sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover’s drill. The image was taken after the sample was transferred from the drill to the rover’s scoop. In planned subsequent steps, the sample will be sieved, and portions of it delivered to the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument.

By Claire

New analyses carried out by the Curiosity Rover on Mars provides more evidence that conditions on Mars were suitable for life.

The Curiosity Rover has been working in an area known as “Yellow Knife Bay”, which has been identified as an ancient stream bed.

Analyses of the composition of rock powder from the stream bed indicate “the rock is made up of a fine-grained mudstone containing clay minerals, sulfate minerals and other chemicals. This ancient wet environment, unlike some others on Mars, was not harshly oxidizing, acidic or extremely salty.”

The sample contained “sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon — some of the key chemical ingredients for life.” Scientists have concluded that this environment could have supported microbial life.  Continue reading “The argument for life on Mars strengthens”

The driest place on Earth


Last Monday, I told you all about a really great documentary I had watched on Sunday about the Mariana Trench. It just so happens that yesterday I was also bored and channel surfing and managed to catch the next episode in the series.

Yesterday’s episode was on “The driest place on Earth” – the Atacama Desert in Chile. The Atacama Desert gets only an average of 1mm of rain each year. (By comparison, the Sahara Desert can get up to 100mm of rain in some places).  Continue reading “The driest place on Earth”

Mission to Mars?

inspiration_marsBy Evan

Private exploration of space is becoming all the rage now a days, after cutbacks to agencies like NASA have stifled government based programs. On Thursday, Dennis Tito (a former astronaut himself when he paid is way to space back in 2001) announced an ambitious plan to send a couple to rocket to Mars and back to Earth during an optimal orbital alignment in 2018. The plan does not include landing on Mars (which I find unfortunate), but it perhaps is the only way to bring the people back with the gravity assist of slingshotting past the planet. Most plans to land people on Mars do not involve a return trip, due to the inability to carry enough fuel to get back. As it stands, Tito’s plan is to send a married couple, with the assumption that they will have a better chance of getting along during the five year trip. For more information, here is a link to the mission’s website.

Tito compared the trip to the Lewis and Clark Expedition (which lasted over two years). I think a more apt comparison might be the Franklin expedition. That mission was truly in an isolated environment through the Canadian Arctic, and was expected to take several years (they had five years worth of food supplies). The last known note from the Franklin Expedition was dated nearly 3 years after it started, after the crew became stranded after their boats became stuck in ice. A slingshot mission to Mars will be a test of the resilience of the human spirit in isolated conditions, with the very real possibility of disaster (over half of the missions to Mars have ended in failure). It would take a very sound mind to tackle this long journey, and I have to say it would be very difficult for just two people to do this. I will be excited to see this happen, though. If successful, I think it will lead to future missions, and possibly a landing on the planet. I think you would need an armada of unmanned ships to build a base with adequate supplies for years if the were to do this.

Mars’ Glacial Past

Topographical relief of the stream-like feature on Mars.
Topographical relief of the river-like feature on Mars.

By Evan

The National Post has put up some of the latest ESA pictures that reveal Mars’ glacial past. Included is a large, 7 km wide river valley, and what appears to be a cirque, a mountain scooped out by a glacier. The river valley shows evidence of braided streams, which are common in glaciated regions. As noted by some of the commentators, this feature is relatively young on the Martian surface, and there are few craters that have damaged the geomorphology.

Martian cirque?
Martian cirque?
A cirque near Jasper, Alberta (I apologize for the darkness, I need a better camera!).
A cirque near Jasper, Alberta (I apologize for the darkness, I need a better camera!).
A braided stream bed on Mars?
A glacially related river bed on Mars? The ESA scientists believe the linear-style features formed long after water flowed to create the valley, possibly by glacial activity.
A braided stream in the Icefields Parkway in Alberta. These are broad, sinuating rivers that are constantly evolving.
A braided stream in the Icefields Parkway in Alberta (if you ever get the chance to go to Alberta, it is one of the most amazing places on Earth). These are broad, sinuating rivers that originate from melting glaciers, and are constantly evolving.


Relive the Landing of Year

By Adi

Scientists compare models to observations to better understand their
system. Here is a beautiful example where a computer simulation is
compared to observations literally out of this world!

Has Curiosity found life on Mars?

Scoop marks in the Mars soil from analyses conducted by Curiosity.
Scoop marks in the Mars soil from analyses conducted by Curiosity.

By Claire

A presentation given by the team responsible for putting the Curiosity Rover on Mars, and for its ongoing exploration have presented some initial findings from the missions at the AGU fall meeting, held this week in San Francisco.

Curiosity has begun sampling the martian soil, testing the chemical composition of a small sand dune in Rocknest.

Curiosity has scooped five soil samples from this area, sending the samples into a variety of analytical tools on board for analysis.

Flow chart showing the process for analysing the soil samples.
Flow chart showing the process for analysing the soil samples.

Initial results from the soil analysis show the presence of organic carbon molecules – a possible indication of the presence of life on Mars.

At this stage, the Curiosity team are cautious of this result, indicating that these molecules could have been brought with Curiosity from Earth. Further analysis of additional soil samples will help to clarify the origin of these organic compounds.

View the full AGU presentation here.

AGU Fall Meeting 2012

AGU conference – lots of people!

By Evan

No, I am not at the AGU Fall Meeting this year. Though, now that I see what is happening there, and pictures of my friends from afar, I wish I was. The American Geophysical Union holds its fall meeting every December in San Francisco, and is the largest gathering of earth scientists in the world. Here are some of the big events going on.

Rumours abounded last week when a NPR report said a that an announcement of results from the Curiosity rover was “gonna be one for the history books”. NASA has tempered those expectations. Disappointingly to some, the results presented were the first analyses of Martian soil, which may have found chlorinated methane compounds (though NASA suggests the methane could have originated from the rover itself). Continue reading “AGU Fall Meeting 2012”

NASA went to Mars and all I got was this lousy conglomerate

most. boring. rock. ever…UNTIL THEY FIND IT ON MARS!!! (not actual mars conglomerate)

By Mike

I’m not a sedimentologist. In fact, in the course of my PhD I’ve developed the sort of attitude which goes: if it happened at less than a thousand degrees, who cares. My life at the moment is full of crazy experiments at ridiculous temperatures and rocks which were once so hot they were liquid (or IGNEOUS rocks to the sharp-witted).

However, when a robot on Mars stumbles across a particular kind of sedimentary rock; a conglomerate, even people like myself get interested.

Continue reading “NASA went to Mars and all I got was this lousy conglomerate”

The next best thing

By Adi

In recent days, Curiosity has been busy with self-inspections and calibration of its instrument suite. It has clocked about 150 meters and continues to work in good health.

You might have already seen some photos of the red planet from this or past missions but prepare to be amazed by this impressive panorama.

The Mars Science Laboratory might only sport a 2 Mega Pixel camera (so that it can send it photos in a reasonable time frame back to Earth), but thanks to the clever people at NASA and photographers like  Andrew Bodrov, we can get a taste for what it might be like to stand on Mars and look around.

Interactive Mars Panorama

360-degree Mars panorama

Access this link on your computer or mobile device (iPad works really well!)

Wanna build your own Mars Science Laboratory? Now you can, with these step by step instructions and it won’t cost $2.5 Billion 😉

Why did NASA send a penny to Mars?

by Brendan

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

If a geologist has ever shown you a set of their photos you have probably seen that they always include objects such as pens, lens caps, rock hammers or coins in the image. Then you probably asked why, to  which they replied that it is for scale. What does this all mean and why is it relevant to the Curiosity Rover and the penny that NASA sent to Mars?

Continue reading “Why did NASA send a penny to Mars?”

Plate Tectonics on Mars?

By Evan

Mars is a hot subject right now, and perhaps this announcement got lost in the shuffle. UCLA scientist An Yin put out a press release early this month announcing he discovered compelling evidence of plate tectonics on Mars. The left lateral strike-slip fault shows clear signs of movement, with part of an impact crater severed. For a good picture of the fault from space, check out this news post on

After some digging, I actually managed to find the scientific paper that details this study (unfortunately it is not available at the ANU Library). Valles Marineris, the feature in question, is over 2000 km long, and had more than 100 km of motion along strike. In comparison to faults on modern Earth, this is not that great, but it may be comparable to faults on Earth during the Archean. Mars is much smaller than the Earth and probably did not store as much heat, so tectonics may have been restricted to this small area of the planet. Yin plainly calls the tectonic plates “Valles Marineris North and Valles Marineris South”. This is a pretty interesting change of interpretation for a feature that was initially thought to be caused by erosion or rifting.

Another Mars Lander Announced

by Brendan

Artist rendition of the proposed InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory missions.
Credit: JPL/NASA

Hot on the heels of the landing of the Curiosity Rover, NASA has announced plans to send another mission to Mars in 2016, and it has a very strong grounding in geophysics. The mission, known as ‘InSight’, will focus on the internal structure and thermal nature of the planet. The lander will have two main instruments, a seismometer, which will be used to measure seismic activity (Marsquakes) and a heat flow probe capable of drilling down approximately 5 metres to obtain long term measurements of heat flow.

One of the big scientific questions around Mars is whether it has any sort of plate tectonics and if not, why not? Continue reading “Another Mars Lander Announced”

Curiosity fires up its LASER

by Brendan

Two weeks ago NASA’s Curiosity Rover touched down on Mars to begin its exploration of Gale Crater. After sending back many spectacular images and receiving some major software updates, it finally got the chance to use its laser last night, with the ChemCam (Chemistry and Camera Instrument) picking the poor unfortunate rock, named ‘Coronation’ (which is most likely basalt) for target practice. Continue reading “Curiosity fires up its LASER”

Mohawks in jet propulsion; the new ‘kittens in geology’?

By Mike

what would his mother say

I still remember the Mars landing like it was the day before yesterday, watching those grainy thumbnails coming through like an early 90s photo, or like those odd photos of the ground you end up with when you lend someone your camera at a party. I remember learning something about peanuts. I remember wondering who the attractive woman was and why did the camera seem to focus on her most of all. But most of all (as far as this blog goes, with much exaggeration) I remember looking at the NASA guy with the mohawk and wondering whether that mohawk was really a thing or was it just my imagination..

Continue reading “Mohawks in jet propulsion; the new ‘kittens in geology’?”


By Claire

Yesterday, at 3:30pm AEST, NASA successfully landed the Curiosity Rover on Mars! I was watching the live broadcast from the NASA control room and was very excited to hear that the landing was a success (although apparently not as excited as the NASA engineers, who were jumping around, hugging each other and crying).

Yesterday’s landing was the culmination of nearly 10 years worth of work.

A “selfie” taken by the Mars Rover minutes after landing successfully.

And just to prove that the landing was actually a success, the Curiosity rover sent back its first images of the Mars surface.
The job of the Curiosity rover is now to look for signs that Mars may have been inhabitable for life in the past.

Curiosity’s chief project scientists, John Grotzinger, said of the mission: “We’re not looking for life. We don’t have the ability to detect life if it was there. We are looking for the ingredients of life.”

Continue reading “Touchdown!”

Mars Curiosity Rover landing today

by Brendan

As Adi has already told us, today NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory is scheduled to the Curiosity rover at approximately 3.30pm AEST.

This morning ANU’s own Dr Charley Lineweaver appeared on the ABC giving a great explanation of the mission in his signature style – check it out here.

You can also watch a live stream of the control centre during the landing via NASA TV.

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