The European Space Agency's (Esa) Mars Express spacecraft has spotted what appears to be an active Glacier on the Martian surface, located in the Deuteronilus Mensae region between Mars' rugged southern highlands and the flat northern lowlands. While Glaciers have been identified before on Mars, previous sightings have been of very old formations (in the region of millions of years old.) This newly identified Glacier may only be several thousand years old. Distinctive glacial ridges have been spotted with white tips that can only be freshly exposed ice. This is an extremely rare occurrence, since as soon as water is exposed to the Martian atmosphere, it sublimates (turns from a solid state directly into gas). More detail can be found at the BBC News website.
Mystery surrounds a decision by NASA to disband a board whose job it was to select the winning proposal for the $475 million Mars atmospheric probe. Citing a serious conflict of interest, NASA disbanded the original board and formed an entirely new one. The administrative delay means that the mission schedule has slipped and the probe will not be able to launch until 2013. NASA is keeping the precise nature of the problem to itself because revealing details would compromise the selection process, saying only "In preparing for the evaluation of Mars Scout Concept Study Reports for the final selection, NASA identified an organizational conflict of interest. NASA determined action had to be taken to resolve the conflict in order to maintain a fair competition."
A 100-meter wide asteroid with the destructive potential of the infamous 1908 Tunguska impact has been detected on a possible collision course with Mars. The odds are 75 to 1 that the asteroid, designated 2007 WD5, will hit Mars by January 30th, but on cosmic terms, this adds up to an incredibly close shave for the Red Planet. If it does hit, the impact will be barely visible from Earth even through powerful telescopes, but several orbiting probes may well be able to see something when it slams into an area near Martian equator. Rather worryingly, the impact is likely to be close by Nasa's long lived Opportunity rover.
The abundant evidence accumulated over recent years for the existence of a water rich atmosphere in the distant Martian past has been vexing scientists. While some clues point dramatically to water having once existing on the surface, other evidence flatly contradicts it. The problem may be that in trying to reconcile the evidence, we have been applying an Earth-like process to Mars when in fact we need to be thinking of something uniquely Martian. The key problem is that probes have uncovered plenty of sulphur minerals on the surface but no limestone as on Earth. The two should go hand in hand, since on Earth, Silicate rocks remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and with water to hand, convert it into calcium carbonate, commonly known as limestone. The lack of limestone has been particularly puzzling, but now a new theory suggests that sulphur dioxide may have taken the place of carbon dioxide. On Earth, sulphur dioxide is quickly oxidised to sulphate, but on an early oxygen poor Mars, the sulphur dioxide would have lingered in the atmosphere for much longer, acting as a greenhouse gas and warming the planet. It's a neat theory, and may finally prove the conclusive step in our understanding of the early Martian atmosphere. More can be read at the BBC website.
NASA has begun to outline some of the specifics of its plan to put a human presence on Mars. The proposed mission vehicle is going to weigh in at a hefty 400,000kg (880,000lb) and is intended to put a "minimal" crew on the surface in 2031. Three or four of NASA's new Ares V rockets will be needed to loft the ship into space, which will require assembling in orbit. An advanced cryogenic fuel propulsion system would propel the mission to Mars on a six to seven month voyage. A cargo lander and surface habitat would be dispatched ahead of the crew vehicle and astronauts will be expected to grow their own fruit and vegetables during their trip. The mission will require an unparalleled degree of expertise from the astronauts, who will be required to respond to any likely situation or emergency far from any possible help. The plan as outlined is still extremely tentative and very likely subject to change, but with other countries eyeing the red planet, the coming decades are shaping up to be very exciting.
NASA mission specialists are racing against time to get Spirit into the optimum position to survive the long Martian winter, but thought they might be in trouble when the rover got itself stuck in a sandy area they named "Tartarus" after a deep, underworld dungeon in Greek mythology. The rover is now free, but has about 25 metres more of equally difficult terrain to cross before it reaches a slope, which it is hoped will provide an optimum spot to soak up enough sunlight to survive the winter.
China is shaping up to be one of the big players in space exploration and has am ambitious set of missions on the drawing board. Newly announced is a launch date for a Mars Orbiter. A final name for the probe has yet to be decided, though the China Daily is calling it Yinghuo-1, which appears to translate as Firefly. The 100kg probe will be lofted into orbit on a Russian launch vehicle in October 2009, marking a new closeness with Russia. Yinghuo-1 is expected to spend a year in orbit about Mars, but the mission has the potential to be extended by a further year. The probe will conduct a variety of scientific observations and return images of the planet.