This is the fourth installment of our Back to School with Planet series, a weekly update for K-8 students interested in learning more about the science we do with Earth and Space. Learn more about this series here.

You can find this entry in Spanish here / Puedes encontrar este texto en español aquí.

You can find this entry in German here / Hier findet ihr den Blogpost auf Deutsch

Mars: The Red Planet. Sometimes our nearest neighbor beyond the Moon (switching off with Venus depending on the time of the year). …

When it comes to space, academia isn’t the only game in town.

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Space has been my career goal since I was a child. As a teenager, I began looking in earnest into what exactly that would entail, reaching out to local space advocacy groups and folks working in aerospace for guidance. From this I formulated my 5-step plan:

1. Go to university to get a Ph.D.

2. Become a professor

3. Get to work on NASA missions

4. Publish papers

5. Become an expert in my chosen field so that folks like the Discovery Channel would want to interview me

(Obviously watching things like Discovery Channel documentaries had a big influence on me as a kid. …

The red planet’s craters are as familiar to me as my yard

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For over a decade, I went to work on Mars.

There was a routine to each day: Come into the office. Make a cup of Earl Grey. Sit down at my computer and delve into the images sent to Earth from Mars overnight. In those moments, I was no longer on Earth. A watchful robotic eye orbiting 175 miles above the surface of the red planet acted as my proxy in the harshness of space.

Alas, I wasn’t wearing an awesome spacesuit to make the journey — although I would like to think that my collection of space-themed T-shirts was at least somewhat as cool. …

NASA’s InSight lander has been making a splash in the news thanks to its capable weather station—but it’s not the first robotic meteorologist we’ve had on Mars.

Last week, NASA unveiled the first weather data from its InSight lander, which arrived on Mars in late November of last year. With a primary goal of collecting seismic and heat flow data to help us learn about the interior structure of the Red Planet, InSight also requires extremely sensitive information about martian weather. …

I was in the room for the final transmission to Opportunity. It was emotional to say the least.

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Gathered in “The Darkroom” above Mission Operations at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, members of the Opportunity team somberly awaited news of what was to become of our dear rover.

Steve Squyres, Opportunity’s principal investigator, came up the darkened stairway. He shook everyone’s hand, then stood looking out over the Mission Ops floor from our glass-encased viewpoint. “It’s been a hell of a ride,” he said.

It was a ride that included 5,111 martian days (“sols”) of operations and more than 45 kilometers of terrain. …

Late last year I gave a lightning talk at an event hosted by Thinkful for Ada Lovelace Day celebrating inspirational women in tech. As this wasn’t a space-centric audience, I took the opportunity to showcase an astronaut perhaps non-space-folk wouldn’t be familiar with:

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Peggy Whitson is the most badass astronaut you’ve maybe never heard of.

Peggy holds the record for the most days spent in space (665 days!) of any American—145 days more than the next runner up, astronaut Scott Kelly. She was the first female commander of the International Space Station, and the first woman to command the station twice. …

The past year was an exciting one for the Red Planet: Opportunity and Curiosity passed major operational milestones, the InSight lander joined the robotic fleet on the surface, and big discoveries like a possible underground lake were announced. What does the coming year have in store for us?

1. #WakeUpOppy

January 24, 2019 marks the 15th anniversary of the Opportunity rover’s landing on Mars. With a primary mission length of only 90 martian days (“sols”), our little rover had wildly surpassed its warranty and all expectations by June of 2018, when it was slammed with the largest dust storm we’ve ever observed on Mars. On sol 5111 of its mission, contact with “Oppy” was lost when dust lofted by the storm blocked so much sun, day essentially became night. Since Opportunity is solar powered, the darkness meant power dropped to perilous levels, and (we think) the rover put itself into hibernation mode to keep itself alive. …

It’s not only winter in the northern hemisphere here on Earth—it’s also winter in the northern hemisphere of our Red Planet neighbour.

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At the time of writing this, the solar longitude on Mars is 315°. Solar longitude, written shorthand as Ls (said aloud as “L sub S”), is a way we keep time on Mars. It’s a measure of where Mars is in its orbit around the sun in terms of a 360° ellipse, marking the current season on the Red Planet. …

On June 1st, the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spied a dust storm brewing. This wasn’t unexpected—it’s early springtime in the southern hemisphere of Mars, which is prime dust storm season. MARCI’s main job is to monitor martian weather, both for science and to aid in operations for missions on and orbiting around Mars. One of the things the MARCI operations team members do is keep an eye out for dust storms that might be heading the way of any of the rovers.

This particular dust storm starting heading toward Opportunity over the following days. Conditions changed rapidly, with the sun completely disappearing from view of the rover within the span of 3 sols (martian days). As of June 11th, the storm is about twice the size of the continental United States. For comparison, the largest storm in recorded history on Earth was only one-quarter the size of the storm currently threatening Opportunity. …

Today NASA held a press conference to announce the results of two papers released in Science this week: One on atmospheric methane, and one on organics in the soil, both from Curiosity rover data.

The history of methane detections on Mars is a tumultuous one. In 2004, the European Space Agency announced that Mars Express had detected small amounts of methane in the martian atmosphere. This was exciting news because on Earth, 95% of methane comes from biological sources—mostly microbes and cows, but we’re pretty sure there are no cows on Mars.

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Methane should break down in the martian atmosphere over the course of about 300 years. So, a source to replenish the methane is required. There also appeared to be geographic and temporal variability in the methane levels. Ground-based measurements from Earth by a team led by Michael Mumma of NASA Goddard in 2003 and 2006 also pointed to localized methane release that varied over time, although these results were not published until 2009. However, the results from both Mumma and Mars Express were somewhat controversial among the scientific community. Why would the methane not be equally mixed throughout the atmosphere? Where could it possibly be coming from? And were the spectroscopic detections of methane really strong enough to be distinguished from noise? …


Tanya Harrison

Professional Martian. Geoscientist at Planet Labs. Former operations team member for Opportunity, Curiosity, & the Mars Recon. Orbiter. Views are my own.

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