Chris McKay and the MPX Proposal Team
A rendition of the proposed location of the Mars Plant Experiment (MPX) on top of a Curiosity rover image. MPX would be affixed to NASA's next Mars rover, which is due to launch in 2020.
NASA/JPL-Caltech (edit by Jason Major/LightsInTheDark.com)
NASA's rover Curiosity has begun drilling operations for the third time on Mars. Currently located at a geologically interesting location nicknamed "The Kimberley," the one-ton rover also took the opportunity to photograph itself and the surrounding landscape in some stunning Martian "selfies." In this scene, Curiosity appears to be leaning its "head" -- a suite of instruments including the Chemcam (the laser "eye") and Mastcam cameras -- to the side, capturing the 5 kilometer-high Aeolis Mons (a.k.a. "Mount Sharp") on the horizon. The self portrait has been stitched togetherby Discovery News' Jason Major
from a series of raw photographs (taken on sol 613, April 28, of the mission) by Curiosity's robotic arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument.
NASA/JPL-Caltech (edit by Doug Ellison/JPL)
In this scene, Curiosity appears to be concentrating hard on a rock of interest -- dubbed "Windjana" by mission scientists after a gorge in Western Australia -- that it has cleaned with its robotic arm-mounted Dust Abrasion Tool. A grey circular patch can be seen on the otherwise rusty rock's surface where the tool has scrubbed away any surface dust ready for analysis and drilling. This beautiful selfie was createdby JPL's Doug Ellison
, after assembling a collection of photos from the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on sol 613 (April 28) of the mission. Curiosity's selfies not only produce some breathtaking scenes, they are also used by mission engineers to keep tabs on the condition of the rover the more time it is exposed to the harsh Martian environment.
Curiosity used its Mastcam to photograph this closeup of its Rock Abrasion Tool. The instrument spins the wire-bristle brush over rock surfaces to remove layers of dust that has accumulated.
After brushing, a grey circle of rock beneath the ruddy Mars dust is exposed for further analysis. In this photo by Curiosity's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), the texture of Mars dust is obvious and fine cracks or seams in "Windjana" can be seen. "In the brushed spot, we can see that the rock is fine-grained, its true color is much grayer than the surface dust, and some portions of the rock are harder than others, creating the interesting bumpy textures,"said Melissa Rice
, Curiosity science team member, of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. "All of these traits reinforce our interest in drilling here in order understand the chemistry of the fluids that bound these grains together to form the rock."
On April 29, Curiosity used its drill to bore a 2 centimeter hole into Windjana. This is only the third rock Curiosity has drilled into since landing on the red planet on Aug. 5, 2012. The grey color obviously extends deeper into the rock than just on its surface, and the powder created can provide a pristine rock sample for further analysis, helping mission scientists understand how the rock formed and under what environmental conditions.
The first two drilled rocks were located in Yellowknife Bay, approximately 4 kilometers from The Kimberley. Those rocks were determined to be mudstone slabs formed through water action and sediment, providing compelling evidence that the interior of Gale Crater used to play host to a lakebed and may have provided a habitable environment for ancient microbial life. This new drilling operation will provide more clues as to how rock formed in the region, revealing more tantalizing clues as to the past habitability of the red planet.
Plant life may touch down on Mars in 2021.
Researchers have proposed putting a plant-growth experiment on NASA's next Mars rover, which is scheduled to launch in mid-2020 and land on the Red Planet in early 2021. The investigation, known as the Mars Plant Experiment (MPX), could help lay the foundation for the colonization of Mars, its designers say.
"In order to do a long-term, sustainable base on Mars, you would want to be able to establish that plants can at least grow on Mars," MPX deputy principal investigator Heather Smith, of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, said April 24 at the Humans 2 Mars conference in Washington, D.C. "This would be the first step in that … we just send the seeds there and watch them grow." [The Boldest Mars Missions in History]
The MPX team — led by fellow Ames scientist Chris McKay — isn't suggesting that the 2020 Mars rover should play gardener, digging a hole with its robotic arm and planting seeds in the Red Planet's dirt. Rather, the experiment would be entirely self-contained, eliminating the chance that Earth life could escape and perhaps get a foothold on Mars.
MPX would employ a clear "CubeSat" box — the case for a cheap and tiny satellite — which would be affixed to the exterior of the 2020 rover. This box would hold Earth air and about 200 seeds of Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant that's commonly used in scientific research.
The seeds would receive water when the rover touched down on Mars, and would then be allowed to grow for two weeks or so.
"In 15 days, we'll have a little greenhouse on Mars," Smith said.
MPX would provide an organism-level test of the Mars environment, showing how Earth life deals with the Red Planet's relatively high radiation levels and low gravity, which is about 40 percent as strong as that of Earth, she added.
"We would go from this simple experiment to the greenhouses on Mars for a sustainable base," Smith said. "That would be the goal."
In addition to its potential scientific returns, MPX would provide humanity with a landmark moment, she added.
"It also would be the first multicellular organism to grow, live and die on another planet," Smith said.
The 2020 Mars rover is based heavily on NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed in August 2012 to determine if the Red Planet has ever been capable of supporting microbial life. Curiosity has already answered that question in the affirmative, finding that a site called Yellowknife Bay was, indeed, habitable billions of years ago.
NASA wants the 2020 rover to search for signs of past Mars life, and collect rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth. But the space agency is still working out the details of the robot's mission — for example, figuring out what instruments it will carry.
NASA received 58 instrument proposals for the rover during its call for submissions, which lasted from September 2013 until January of this year. Final selections should be made by June or so, NASA officials have said.
Curiosity totes 10 instruments around Mars, so the 2020 rover may end up with a similar amount of scientific gear.
More from SPACE.com:
Images: NASA's Next Mars Rover Launching in 2020
Mars One's Red Planet Colony Project (Gallery)
The Search for Life on Mars (A Photo Timeline)
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