Recent observations of Mars have suggested the planet may have been covered in vast reserves of water, but that it was too acidic to support life. But now NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is reported to have discovered carbonates on the surface that could not have survived in the harsh water thought to have dominated the surface. This strongly suggestes that there were pockets of water on the surface much more conducive to life. Read more at space.com.
New details have emerged of a joint Russian/Chinese mission to Mars, following the signing of a co-operative agreement in March 2007. Yinghuo-1 and the Russian Phobos-Grunt probe will be dispatched together on board a Russian Zenit rocket from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan, with an October 2009 launch date penciled in. On Arrival after an 11-month voyage, Yinghuo-1 will go into orbit, where it will study the magnetic field, the interaction between ionospheres, escape particles, and solar wind. It also carries cameras, which will image the surface and the moons of Mars. The Chinese probe will draw power during it's flight to Mars from the Russian vehicle, but Chinese scientists are still apparently working to solve potential power problems when their 110 kilogram solar powered probe detaches and goes into orbit, where it will encounter frequent periods when it will be in shadow. Meanwhile Phobos-Grunt will attempt a highly ambitious touchdown on the moon Phobos, where it will collect samples for return to earth. The main body of the lander will continue operating on Phobos for up to a year.
Scientists working with the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, (HIRISE) camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been busy accumulating a stunning new set of 3D images of the Martian surface. 362 of these have now been released by the HIRISE team on their web site, and all you need is a cheap pair of 3D glasses to view these remarkable images. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been a stunning success, with over 800,000 image assets now released. These latest set includes a simply heart stopping image of Sixty-meter tall fractured mounds, probably composed of solidified lava, on the southern edge of Elysium Planitia and extraordinary layers below the rim of Candor Chasma, which is a large canyon in the Valles Marineris. To view all the images, visit the HIRISE site.
NASA plans for further exploration of Mars have suffered a blow with the announcement that their Mars Science Laboratory mission has been delayed due to overruns on the technical development of the rover. With a massive payload 10 times the weight of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the mission is extremely ambitious, but problems with the 31 actuators that control the steering mechanism, drill and robotic arm are been blamed on the delay. Because missions need to be launched every 26 months when Earth and Mars are their optimum positions, the sensible decision was taken to allow the launch date to slip rather than try to rush the process of perfecting the actuators. More on this story at the LA Times.