USGS Astrogeology Science Center News News about current and upcoming space missions, USGS gelogic products and historical exhibits en-us <![CDATA[Astrogeology Welcomes New Director]]> Sun, 12 Aug 2018 00:00:00 -0700 Acting Southwest Regional Director, William R. Guertal, announced the selection of Justin Hagerty as the new Director of Astrogeology Science Center on July 5, 2018. Justin assumed the new role on July 22 and succeeded Laszlo Kestay.

Astro DirectorAstrogeology Science Center Director, Dr. Justin Hagerty

As Astrogeology’s new director, Justin will oversee 86 employees including civil service and contractors, and has performed management roles many times before in other positions. He holds a Bachelor of Science with honors, a Masters, and a PhD degree in Earth and Planetary Sciences from the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque. Justin said,


“I am honored to be given this opportunity, and I look forward to serving all of the talented and driven people that make up this incredible center.”


Justin has a decade of experience in planetary science having managed cooperative science projects from inception through delivery, leading interdisciplinary and international groups through planning and implementation of mission goals, competitively obtaining multi-year funding, and conducting complex scientific investigations, Guertal reports. In fact, in 2012, Justin was a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.


Previous directorPrevious Astrogeology Science Center Director, Dr. Laszlo Kestay

The Astrogeology team thanks Laszlo Kestay for 8 years of meritorious service as Director. “Laz provided stable leadership during many budgetary challenges, and developed a healthy and productive relationship between USGS and NASA. The Astrogeology team will continue to benefit from Laszlo’s leadership and science expertise,” Guertal said. Laszlo returned to his passion of research at Astrogeology, so he will be around.

Laszlo said, "Justin is 'that leader' with skills that can take Astrogeology from our 5th decade to well in the future."

<![CDATA[Sol 2129: Dude, where’s my data?]]> Wed, 01 Aug 2018 00:00:00 -0700 Sol 2126 Mastcam Left

Curiosity is currently on her way to a potentially softer rock target to drill in the Pettegrove Point member of Vera Rubin Ridge.  Today was a late slide sol, which means we had to wait until 11am PDT for the downlink to arrive.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get our downlink today from MRO.  I was the SOWG Chair today, and it was an interesting morning as we had to quickly adjust the plan without knowing the current state of the rover. However, the team turned it around and made the most of the untargeted remote sensing sol.  The geology theme group planned several autonomously targeted AEGIS observations of bedrock in the workspace, along with a Mastcam mosaic of the workspace and a Navcam mosaic of the ChemCam targetable region to prepare for targeting in the weekend plan.  The environmental theme group took advantage of the day with two Mastcam tau and crater rim extinction observations, a Navcam line of sight and dust devil movie, and Navcam suprahorizon and zenith movies.  All of this great environmental monitoring data will help as we continue to assess the ongoing dust storm.  Looking ahead, we hope to proceed with science activities and driving in the weekend plan with the help of the Mars Odyssey spacecraft to relay data.  Just another day and another challenge working on Mars!

By Lauren Edgar 

--Lauren is a Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of the MSL science team.

Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

<![CDATA[Blood Moon Tonight]]> Fri, 27 Jul 2018 00:00:00 -0700 Tonight you can see a  Blood Moon lasting longer than ususal. Update: See it here if you missed it.

Credits: NASA]]>
<![CDATA[Astrogeology, Shoemaker, Cinder Lakes, and the Moon]]> Tue, 31 Jul 2018 00:00:00 -0700

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Lunar Landing having begun July 20 and continuing through July 2019, in Flagstaff, AZ — what better time exists to expose a true, raw, behind-the-scenes account of Astrogeology’s (Astro) involvement in the Apollo Era and spare no gritty details?

Only part of the story can be told when touring space-training land marks where Astro’s geologists trained the astronauts, or at STEM activities, where our scientists are sharing their lunar expertise community-wide, or at their talks when a limitation must be set on everyone’s time.

You can find the location of the Apollo 11 landing site in Astro’s maps of the Moon, but the gift of the five senses that brings this 50-year-old story of our involvement in color—cannot be fully realized in them. Millions watched the Apollo 11 moon landing on television, in 1969, and even it answers only certain questions however witnesses important firsts in which proud America was successful.

We make no excuse for providing our neighbors and others in the world in-depth information regarding our involvement in the Apollo missions. We take this time to pull from our digital bookshelf an Open File Report written by Jerry Schaber, a retired geologist employed by Astro, who helped train the astronauts, and who spares no details in USGS Open File Report 2005-1190, The U.S. Geological Survey, Branch of Astrogeology—A Chronology of Activities from Conception through the End of Project Apollo (1960-1973), regarding our involvement.

You are cordially invited to indulge this free gift now, and find out details of our involvement without time limitations as a factor.




<![CDATA[Sol 2116: Driving back to Sgurr of Eigg]]> Thu, 19 Jul 2018 00:00:00 -0700
The Sol 2115 wheel imaging went well, and we received the images needed to plan a drive back to "Sgurr of Eigg," near the Sol 1999 rover position.  The >50-meter drive dominates the Sol 2116 plan, but leaves time for continued atmospheric and other scientific observations.  Before the drive, Right Mastcam will image the ChemCam target selected by AEGIS on Sol 2115 and Navcam will monitor the opacity of the atmosphere.  After the drive and the standard post-drive imaging needed to plan weekend activities, Mastcam will measure the atmospheric opacity and ChemCam will observe another target selected by AEGIS.  Early in the morning of Sol 2117, Mastcam and Navcam will again monitor opacity, and Navcam will look for clouds overhead and near the horizon to measure wind velocity.


Earth and Mars are getting closer to each other this month, and by the end of this month Mars will be closer to Earth than it has been since 2003!  Mars is visible low in the southeast after evening twilight.  If you have a good telescope, you can monitor the progress of the global dust storm that is being intensely studied from spacecraft orbiting Mars as well as by MSL.


by Ken Herkenhoff


Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

<![CDATA[Sol 2115: New method of wheel imaging]]> Wed, 18 Jul 2018 00:00:00 -0700

The priorities for Sol 2115 are to image the rover's wheels and acquire the images needed to plan a drive back to the Sol 1999 location, where we might start another drilling campaign.  The MAHLI images of the wheels taken on Sol 2114 with the dust cover closed show that there is enough dust on the cover to make it difficult to see the wheels, so a different approach to wheel imaging was planned for Sol 2115.  To minimize the risk of dust contamination of MAHLI's optics while the cover is open, MAHLI will image only the wheels on the left side of the rover from above the wheels, keeping MAHLI pointing downward while the dust cover is open.  The wheels on the right side of the rover will be imaged by the left Mastcam rather than MAHLI.  Then the rover will turn in place to allow imaging in the direction of the next drive, toward the southwest.  After acquiring the standard post-drive data, Mastcam will observe the Sun and crater rim to continue the monitoring of the dust opacity over Gale Crater.  These observations will be repeated twice early in the morning on Sol 2116 to look for short-term changes in opacity.  In addition, ChemCam will use the AEGIS software to autonomously select a bedrock target for a 3x3 LIBS raster.  Tactical planning went smoothly, so it was an easy day for me as SOWG Chair! 

by Ken Herkenhoff

Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

<![CDATA[Good Times at the Lunar Legacy Celebration Begin July 20]]> Tue, 17 Jul 2018 00:00:00 -0700 Individuals of the Astrogeology Team will be at the Lunar Legacy Celebration, July 20, at the Orpheum Theatre in Flagstaff, Arizona. Not only will you not want to miss this fun family-friendly event, it is totally free. The city will be celebrating Flagstaff’s scientific role in the Apollo Moon missions and the Flagstaff Lunar Legacy 18-month celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the first Moon landing.

You can arrive as early as 5 p.m., and festivities begin at 5:30 p.m.

Subject matter experts will provide demonstrations and information about the Moon, particularly the astronaut training, instrument testing, and mapping that took place in northern Arizona. In addition, there will be activities for children, telescope viewing, science experiments, rover activities and more. At 8 p.m. you can enjoy a free concert: two bands will play space-themed music, and you will find so much more to do and see at the celebration. See a timetable of events here.

Visitor can buy sustenance and beverages, including "Apollo IPA" by the Grand Canyon Brewing Company.

<![CDATA[Beloved JPL Nominated for an Emmy: Sweet!]]> Mon, 16 Jul 2018 00:00:00 -0700 Will NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) be granted an Emmy for Outstanding Original Interactive Program for its coverage of the Cassini mission? Alongside every other person sitting on pins and needles, individual curiosity can’t be satisfied until later this year, on 15 September, at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles.

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has nominated NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for its coverage of the Cassini mission’s Grand Finale at Saturn, a mission after a mission, well-known and with high interest in the science arena as well as the public. Be that as it may, that’s not the entire formula that got JPL running with the big dogs of Hollywood.

Artist rendition shows Cassini as the spacecraft makes one of its final five dives through Saturn's upper atmosphere in August and September 2017. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA ran a flaming campaign that beautifully had everyone on notice regarding the Cassini Final Grand Finale. If one wanted information they were likely to find it on popular social networking sites, science media, the Cassini website, and various media outlets. No one was left out that did not want to be.


<![CDATA[Sol 2113: Hard as a rock]]> Mon, 16 Jul 2018 00:00:00 -0700 Sol 2112 Front Hazcam drill

Unfortunately, we found out this morning that the “Voyageurs” drill target was a much harder rock than expected.  While our drill plan executed perfectly, our bit stopped short of the full depth we need for sampling.  The engineers are still evaluating the data to better understand the target.  I had a busy morning as SOWG Chair, as the team had to come up with a new plan for today while thinking about our longer-term strategy.  Ultimately, we decided to focus on contact science and documenting the mini drill hole in today’s plan.

The plan kicks off with several Navcam observations to monitor atmospheric opacity during the ongoing dust storm.  Then we’ll take several Mastcam change detection observations to characterize the movement of sand, followed by several ChemCam observations to assess the diversity of color and composition in the bedrock here.  We’ll also take a ChemCam RMI image of the “Voyageurs” target, which will help with targeting the drill hole with ChemCam in tomorrow’s plan. The afternoon includes a few more environmental monitoring activities, including a Navcam line-of-sight image, Mastcam tau, and crater rim extinction observation.  Then Curiosity will image the drill chuck, drill bit, and turret, to monitor our tools.  In the evening, we’ll acquire an APXS integration on the drill tailings, and overnight we’ll get a longer APXS integration on the drill hole.  Today is a reminder that it’s hard to operate a rover and drill on another planet, but I’m hopeful that we’ll find a way to sample this part of the ridge!

By Lauren Edgar

--Lauren is a Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of the MSL science team.


Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

<![CDATA[Sols 2110-2112: Let the drill fest begin!]]> Fri, 13 Jul 2018 00:00:00 -0700 Sol 2109 Front Hazcam

Drilling on another planet is no easy feat, and each time we have the opportunity to do so on Mars feels pretty special.  The focus of the weekend three-sol plan is to drill the target “Voyageurs,” which is part of an outcrop that shows a high hematite signature in orbital data.

The weekend plan kicks off with several Navcam and Mastcam observations of the atmosphere to continue to monitor the ongoing dust storm from our unique vantage point on the ground.  Then ChemCam will analyze the “Voyageurs” target, followed by Mastcam multispectral imaging. Curiosity will continue several important environmental monitoring observations later in the afternoon and first thing the next morning, and throughout the second and third sols.  The second sol also includes more Mastcam change detection observations of three different targets to look for changes and the movement of fine material. Then we’ll acquire MAHLI pre-drill images, and APXS on the future dump locations. With those observations complete, we’ll be “go” for the full drill of the “Voyageurs” target on Sol 2112! I’ll be on duty on Monday, so I’m anxiously awaiting the results of the drilling attempt and look forward to finding out what this rock is made of!

By Lauren Edgar

--Lauren is a Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of the MSL science team.

Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

<![CDATA[Happy July 4th and 1997 throwback!]]> Tue, 03 Jul 2018 00:00:00 -0700 Twenty-one years ago Mars Pathfinder landed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station along with a wheeled robotic rover named Sojourner in Ares Vallis, on Mars, on July fourth of 1997. The mission was launched on December 4, 1996 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Transmissions ceased from this innovative machinery during the morning of September 27, 1997. There were numerous discoveries from the Mars Pathfinder mission that we can reminisce about on the birthday of its landing.  Particularly, scientists now believe that ancient Mars used to be a wetter and warmer place than it is now.

pathfinder rover

Sojourner Rover. Photo credit: NASA

Let the celebration begin!


“Of course, we wouldn’t show up without  fireworks”

See them here with sight and sounds as Mars Pathfinder ventures to destination Mars. See the rocket's red glare!

Once at Mars, a parachute was deployed to slow Pathfinder’s descent through the thin Martian atmosphere. The pyramid-shaped lander was covered in a cluster of airbags, resembling balloons, in place of conventional rockets, for a gentler and cheaper way to land. Pathfinder dropped a 100 feet from the ground and bounced around before it came to a safe stop, which was expected regardless of its orientation upon impact with the surface of the planet, due to the design to handle lateral movement as well as vertical descent. Pure genius!

“Yes, we even have a parachute + balloons” Pathfinder airbags

“Sojourner has a camera”

She wasn't afraid to compete with Ansel Adams. Sojourner sent home 550 images and the lander sent 16,500. The rover had three cameras: two monochrome cameras in front, and a color camera in the rear. In addition, more than 15 chemical analyses of rocks and soil and extensive data on winds and other weather factors were acquired.

"Help me to remember what we are celebrating."

For the first time, scientists used a small wheeled robot, Sojourner, to study the surface of Mars, and new landing technology was being explored.

Moreover, Americans are celebrating the birth of our nation today. America severed her political connections to Great Britain, by issuance of the Declaration of Independence, and have celebrated ever since.

“So where is the food for Fourth of July?"

You mean the burgers, hot dogs, fries, barbeque and grilled everything, cool plates of mixed greens, cake and American pie? So sad, scientific geniuses are attempting to make sense of this. Meanwhile you might hurry to the nearest grocery store and get something scrumptious, and have an awesome FOUTH of JULY from our team at the Astrogeology Science Center.



<![CDATA[Science Fact or Fiction: does Kilauea skylight show a place of eternal unrest?]]> Thu, 28 Jun 2018 00:00:00 -0700 Social media is gobbling up a photograph of a West Kamokuna lava skylight captured back in 1996 by Astrogeology Science Center Director and volcanologist, Dr. Laszlo Kestay. It isn’t just any skylight photo. Some have esteemed it the most interesting photo they have ever observed and even view it as a work of art. Others think the photograph is fake and still others think it depicts a portal to eternal punishment.

 Kilauea Skylight

West Kamokuna Skylight. Photo Credit: Laszlo Kestay, USGS. Public domain


Dr. Laszlo Kestay has responded to queries about this digitized slide taken, in 1996, during fieldwork within Hawaii Volcanoes National park, done by the USGS Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory.

Such skylights are generally off-limits to park visitors because they are very dangerous to approach due to the possibility of further roof collapses and the extremely hot air that blows out of the skylight.

The current activity on Kilauea has captured media and public attention because it is impacting large numbers of residences. The resulting increased search for images of lava in Hawaii could be the reason the photo was rediscovered.

This particular skylight, Dr. Laszlo Kestay explains, was located on the coastal flats below Pulama Pali, an excellent location for conducting scientific observations. The photogenic toes of pahoehoe lava frozen around the sides of the skylight are from a lava flow that moved across the skylight and sent lava cascading back into the tube.

During much of the 35 years of the Kilauea eruption, lava has quietly flowed from the Puu Oo vent to the ocean through insulating lava tubes. These lava tubes form as small (ankle-to-knee deep) pahoehoe. These flows are "inflated" by the injection of more lava into their still molten interior, resulting in lava flows a few meters (yards) thick. The movement of the lava becomes focused into narrow pathways as less favorable routes freeze. This "river" of lava flowing under an insulating crust is a lava tube. In some locations, this roof collapses, providing a "skylight" onto the stream of fluid lava.

“Having an active surface flow cross over an active skylight is a bit of a rare coincidence, so this was definitely worth taking a photo - even back in the days of film cameras where you had quite a limited number of shots you could take,” said Dr. Kestay.

<![CDATA[Sols 2095-2096: Over the crest]]> Wed, 27 Jun 2018 00:00:00 -0700 Sol 2094 Navcam

After a steep drive Sol 2094, Curiosity is back over the crest of Vera Rubin Ridge and enjoying the view of flatter terrain ahead.  I was the SOWG Chair on this late slide sol, which means that we started planning 3.5 hours later than usual. Everything was going smoothly and we were excited to plan some potential contact science, until we found a rock under the left front wheel that might make Curiosity unstable during arm activities. So at the last minute we swapped out MAHLI and APXS activities for some additional remote sensing.  We still packed a lot of science into the two-sol plan, and we’ll have another opportunity to do contact science in the weekend plan. 

The first sol includes ChemCam and Mastcam observations of “Crosby” and “Hekkla Lake” to characterize the bedrock at this location.  This plan is also full of atmospheric observations to monitor the ongoing dust storm, which will provide some great data from the surface regarding this unique event.  We also planned Mastcam imaging of the rover deck to monitor the accumulation and movement of fine material, as well as a number of ChemCam calibration activities under high atmospheric opacity conditions.  Then Curiosity will continue driving to the south and will acquire post-drive imaging to prepare for the weekend plan.  Overnight, CheMin will carry out the last analysis of the Duluth drill sample.  The second sol includes more atmospheric monitoring and calibration activities, along with a ChemCam AEGIS observation to autonomously target bedrock in our new location.  Hoping for clearer skies and fewer loose rocks under our wheels!

By Lauren Edgar

--Lauren is a Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of the MSL science team.

Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

<![CDATA[Sols 2093-2094: Feeling powerful]]> Mon, 25 Jun 2018 00:00:00 -0700 Sol 2092 Navcam

Today’s 2-sol plan kicked off with the good news that our power state exceeded predictions, so we were able to add in some extra science activities.  The first sol starts with several remote sensing activities to continue to monitor the ongoing dust storm.  Then the team planned several ChemCam observations of “Mudhole Lake,” “Jacobs Lake,” and “Monker Lake” to assess the bedrock chemistry and search for evaporites, followed by Mastcam documentation.  In the afternoon, Curiosity will acquire a short multispectral tau observation to measure the optical depth of the atmosphere and constrain aerosol scattering properties.  Given the extra power today, but without many appealing contact science targets, the team decided to get an APXS calibration target observation overnight.  On the second sol Curiosity will continue driving up the steep slope to the south, followed by post-drive imaging and further atmospheric observations.  I’ll be on duty for the next plan, so I spent today getting caught up on everything that Curiosity has been up to! 

By Lauren Edgar

--Lauren is a Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of the MSL science team.

Dates of planned rover activities described in these reports are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

<![CDATA[USGS New Director Visits Flagstaff Science Center]]> Tue, 19 Jun 2018 00:00:00 -0700 USGS employees at the Flagstaff Science Center met their new leader, USGS director James Reilly II, in an All Hands meeting, today, at 2:00 pm.  President Donald Trump nominated Reilly and he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate by Voice Vote on April 9, 2018. Although some employees had met him prior to today’s meeting, for others it was the very first time meeting him.

Reilly told the USGS group, “You get your shot at the director today.”

USGS Director

New USGS director engaging with USGS campus employees.


Getting to know the director:

Reilly is the 17th director of the USGS. His deep-rooted dream since childhood was to be an astronaut. Astrogeology, part of the USGS, was heavily involved in astronaut training during the Apollo era, and the director is likewise a previous NASA astronaut who flew on three Space Shuttle missions: on the STS-89, STS-104 and STS-117. He spent 853 hours in space, 31 hours on space walks (5 in all) and voyaged 14 million miles in space. Additionally, he worked on the ISS and Mir space stations.

From space, Reilly said you have a different perspective. When you look at the Earth, you see a lot of water and then more water. You might say ‘Land ho’ when you finally see land. You can see stars more clearly from space than we do from Earth. If you picture the sky without a lot of moon light, multiply that by a thousand and that is what the sky looks like from space. Stars do not really twinkle and they are not white. They are a wide spectrum of different hues, mostly green and blue but also violet and red. And of course the color is also determined by the Doppler shift of the spectrum as stars recede or approach our planet. From space, the sun is not yellow, but it is a blinding white light in space.

Director Reilly has multiple degrees in geoscience, including a PhD from the University of Texas in Dallas. He holds a rich geologic background. He also worked as a petrogeologist for Enserch Exploration in Dallas, where he helped to apply new imaging technology in deep-water engineering projects and geological research, and there is much more in his wide and varied background than can be described here.

What he will do for the USGS:

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is dedicated to preserving the integrity of the scientific activities it conducts and that are conducted on its behalf and Reilly stated he is committed to the principles of Scientific Integrity. "If someone were to come to me and say, 'I want you to change this because it's the politically right thing to do,' I would politely decline," Reilly said in the past. Today, he re-emphasized, "I'm fully committed to Scientific Integrity." The director also plans to be a buffer between politics and science, and to keep things running smoothly at the USGS.

Highlight of more discussions:

The director warned about  “rumor intelligence” where you believe whatever comes by your office. He warns against it and expounded on several avenues in which ‘employees’ can communicate with him about their concerns.

He also noted that people love their jobs at the USGS, and they stay on the job a long time. In retrospect, such longevity on the job has caused a gap between senior and junior employees. Although we need senior employees, this gap must be mended by recruiting younger individuals.

The overarching concern from younger individuals at the meeting is that you must have a PhD in hand before getting the opportunity to apply to some of the existing science opportunities. In addition, job resources in Flagstaff may not accommodate spouses with different disciplines. The director said sometimes you have to go after opportunities and be willing to go where the jobs are.

Director James Reilly II admired the USGS location in Flagstaff, calling it premium, but had more work on his list to do and a plane to catch. It was an honor to have the director drop by and talk with the USGS campus team.