USGS Astrogeology Science Center Astrogeology News News about current and upcoming space missions, USGS gelogic products and historical exhibits en-us <![CDATA[Microbes on Mars: Wanted Dead or Alive]]> Fri, 21 Jul 2017 00:00:00 -0700 Scientists want to find microbes on Mars whether they are dead or alive! The discovery of microbes is evidence that Mars harbors life or did so in the past. Using an avalanche of scientific data acquired from the red planet, scientists have theorized and provided compelling evidence that life may have existed on Mars, likely based on comparisons to life as we know it on Earth. The objectives of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission may confirm or deny that life did or did not ever exist on Mars. Only how do scientists know where to look to solve this puzzle once the robotic geologist reaches the red planet? What type of data products do they use to determine likely places where microbial life may lurk or the dead rest?  Don't miss out.  Robin Ferguson, USGS scientist, shares some answers with the community in the excerpt and linked abstract below.

Possible microbes

Image Credit: NASA

Excerpt: “The Mars 2020 rover will explore a region of Mars where the ancient environment may have been favorable for microbial life, and investigate Martian rocks for evidence of past life. Throughout its investigation, it will collect samples of soil and rock, and cache them on the surface for potential return to Earth by a future mission. A diverse set of 8 candidate sites are currently being considered as potential landing sites, including Columbia Hills/Gusev, Ebserswalde, Holden, Jezero, Mawrth, NE Syrtis, Nili Fossae, and SW Melas. Columbia Hills/Gusev was the location where the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit landed and operated from 2004 to 2010 [1-2]. Three sites (Eberswalde, Holden, and Mawrth) were previously evaluated as candidate Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) sites [3-4].”

Read more of the abstract

<![CDATA[Erosion Strikes Again!]]> Fri, 14 Jul 2017 00:00:00 -0700 If you have seen the photo below, then you have witnessed Mars’ famous upside down stream channels. How were these once flowing stream channels now flipped upside down you ask? Erosion is to blame! The infamous and sometime elusive erosion is not only found to be a troublemaker on Earth, but also on Mars. Erosion is responsible for the breakdown and movement of rock and soil. Mountains weathering away to nothing or the formation of vast canyons, such as the Grand Canyon, are the result of erosion. As for Mars’ upside down stream channels, after running water in a channel dries up, erosion creeps in and takes over. The surface around the channel erodes down and causes the channel to become inverted, referred to as a sinuous ridge.

Amber Gullikson and Ryan Anderson are working on mapping these features to understand where they are concentrated and what they can tell us about the past climate on Mars. While they’re at it they are also mapping valleys, canyons, and other channels at a higher resolution than has been done before. Follow the link below to learn more about this work and why Ryan and Amber are focusing on Northwest Hellas, Mars.



 Sinuous ridge, northwest Hellas, Mars. Image via CTX” width=

Image Credit: CTX

Excerpt: “Evidence for flowing water on the surface of Mars has been recognized since the Mariner 9 mission, when images were returned showing extensive dendritic valley networks [1]. With increasingly high resolution images afforded by more recent orbiter missions, numerous potential fluvial features such as stream channels, gullies, and sinuous ridges have been identified. The work presented here focuses on sinuous ridges, which are interpreted to be either inverted fluvial channels or eskers [e.g. 2-6]. Although related to flowing liquid water, sinuous ridges are understudied in comparison to Martian valley networks. Sinuous ridge occurrences were documented on a global scale using data from the Mars Orbital Camera (MOC) [7] and the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) [8] by [9], but no large-scale maps tracing the morphology of these features, comparable to the global maps of valley networks [10,11], exists. We present the results of an ongoing effort to map sinuous ridges in a large region of interest (-15°N to -45°N, 30°E to 75°E) in northwestern Hellas.”

Read on

<![CDATA[Amusing Sand Match on Mars and Earth]]> Fri, 07 Jul 2017 00:00:00 -0700

Image Credit: NASA

Sand Dune at Grand Falls

Image Credit: Ryan Anderson, USGS


" The GF dune field (~1.6 km x 1 km) is located ~70 km NE of Flagstaff, AZ, and just north of the Little Colorado River (LCR). The dunes at GF are in a local topographic minimum, migrating toward higher ground that will impede their progress. This setting is analogous to the setting of an estimated 1000 dune fields on Mars that occur within craters and valleys [1]. A more detailed description of the analog site can be found in Bogle et al. [2]. Most of the dune sand on Mars is likely of basaltic composition [e.g., 3]. Basalt sand is also present in significant amounts at GF, allowing us to observe its behavior under various atmospheric conditions. Bimodal grain size is another sand characteristic common to both GF and Mars [e.g., 4]. "

Continue observation with Tim

<![CDATA[Sol 1748: Bumping to a sand ripple]]> Thu, 06 Jul 2017 00:00:00 -0700

Another touch-and-go was strategically planned for today, and there is bedrock in the arm workspace, so the tactical science team selected a block named "Tupper Ledge" for contact science.  After APXS measures the elemental chemistry of Tupper Ledge and MAHLI takes a full suite of images of the same target, the arm will be stowed to allow ChemCam and Right Mastcam observations of a soil target called "No Mans Land" and a bedrock target dubbed "Sugar Loaves."  Navcam will search for clouds above the horizon and the Right Mastcam will snap a couple pictures of "Harris," a trough in the dark sand. 

Today's drive goal is to place the crest of a sand ripple in the arm workspace, to allow contact science on the ripple this weekend.  A wheel scuff of the ripple was added by the Rover Planners, which should allow the interior of the ripple to be observed.  After the drive and standard post-drive imaging, Navcam will search for clouds overhead and DAN will make another active measurement of hydrogen in the near-subsurface.  Once again, the tactical team did a great job, 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[Become A Cartographer]]> Thu, 29 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0700 One of the hottest jobs in the 2000s is a cartographer. No need to know who Anaximander is, but you might intend to pursue a spatial science background. If you like map making, then you can do what you love, you can make a decent salary, and you will be in demand! According to Future U.S. Workforce for Geospatial Intelligence, a report from the National Research Council, "Future shortages in cartography, photogrammetry, and geodesy seem likely because the number of graduates is too small (tens to hundreds) to give NGA choices or means of meeting sudden demand." That being said, would you like a more thorough definition of what cartography is and what it means to be a cartographer today in the planetary sciences? Randy Kirk, a brilliant geophysicist and cartographer, now working in a scientist emeritus capacity, discusses cartographic work today. Get the inside scoop and become more acquainted with cartography.



Credit: NASA

Excerpt: " The dictionary definition of cartography, “the science or art of making maps” [1] succeeds or fails on the breadth of one’s definition of a “map”. Printed maps and globes, the traditional examples, are still useful but have mostly been supplanted by digital and increasingly more dynamic products. The use of “cartography” as a blanket term in the NASA planetary exploration community is arguably a historical accident, related to the establishment of oversight and planning groups beginning with the Lunar Photography and Cartography Committee in 1974 and evolving into the Planetary Cartography and Geologic Mapping Working Group (PCGMWG) by 1994 [2]. Through the lunar/planetary cartography program overseen by these groups, NASA recognized its need for a wide range of spatial data products to support scientific research, generated by an evolving mix of technologies evolving from photographic processing, airbrush artistry, and analytical photogrammetry [3] toward an increasingly integrated set of solutions for processing, organizing and presenting spatial data in digital form. Perhaps unfortunately, the narrow term “cartography” remained in use as a cover for this evolving program over several decades. Yet, it would be equally naïve to define planetary cartography as “the activity of NASA’s planetary cartography program”. Not only does this leave out the crucial contributions of other national and international space agencies, it fails to recognize that a great deal of the work is done by missions (e.g., characterization, geometric and radiometric calibration of instruments by the teams of experts that developed them, implementation of data processing pipelines, and production of first if not always final drafts of key map products), as well as by investigators funded by other research and analysis programs."


Read more of Randy's abstract]]>
<![CDATA[PILOT taking orders 24-7]]> Fri, 23 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0700 Would you like to download data of Mars, Saturn, the Moon, or some other interesting planetary images for scientific research, academia, or just plainly because you would like to? Do you need help with processing the data as well and you need it fast? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, PILOT is at your service 24-7. Briefly, PILOT is a core infrastructure for planetary and small bodies information access across multiple NASA Planetary Data System repositories. Input your query and PILOT returns well-directed, credible, and reliable results. Mark Bailen, web developer, the real pilot of PILOT (pun intended) will orient you more in the abstract linked below. You can get started now. Why wait?

Menu of Pilot's planetary services


  “The Planetary Image Locator Tool (PILOT) is a web-based search interface ( that provides access to numerous NASA Planetary Data System (PDS) image catalogs [1]. PILOT was developed and is maintained by the Cartography and Imaging Sciences “Imaging” Node. PILOT complements other node delivery services. For example, it works well with the Planetary Image Atlas (see Functionality has recently been added to PILOT to allow users access to image data catalogs from the Dawn mission, providing access to Dawn Framing Camera images and metadata for the asteroids Vesta and Ceres. In the future, image data for the Pluto encounter from the LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) onboard the New Horizons spacecraft will be accessible through PILOT, providing access to these images of Pluto and its moon, Charon.”  Read more. . .


Link to PILOT
Get the FAQs

<![CDATA[Naming a baby or planetary feature: which is easier?]]> Fri, 16 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0700 After debating over what to name the baby, you’d probably be happier to name a planetary surface feature, natural satellite, dwarf planet, or a planetary ring or two. It seems easier than the conundrums of figuring out what to name a child, particularly when it gets frustrating and everyone has an opinion, and you just can’t decide. The truth is the naming process (for surface features, satellites, dwarf planets and rings) share many of the same characteristics and challenges as parents-to-be in the naming of a child: ethos, history, naming after deceased persons, and so on, and I suspect some hot debates can develop behind closed doors, just as in families. However, some things are done in naming planetary features that regular families don’t do. Can you guess what things they are? Rosalyn Hayward is a Database Manager for Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature and she tells how the naming job gets done!



“The task of naming planetary surface features, rings, and natural satellites is managed by the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN). WGPSN members include Rita Schulz (chair) and 9 other members representing countries around the globe (see author list). In 2013, Blue et al. [1] presented an overview of planetary nomenclature. Given the extensive planetary exploration and research that has taken place since 2013, it is timely to update the community on the status of planetary nomenclature, the purpose and rules, the process for submitting name requests, and the IAU approval process.”

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<![CDATA[The Grandest Canyon on Mars]]> Fri, 09 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0700 There has always been a fascination with canyons, their beauty, size, and history. Many people travel long distances to see and to explore these nature-made wonders. Mars’ magnificent Valles Marineris canyon, for example, would be a place we canyon lovers would pack up and go see --if it wasn’t so far away. Thanks to planetary missions, we have pictures of this canyon that is 2500 miles-long and 5 miles-deep in some places. We have our imagination. We have Corey Fortezzo who maps geological features of this canyon-and describes it such that—when it is all said and done--we might feel we have been near it.  We may have thought we felt texture, and certainly the next time we hear the name Valles Marineris, it will seem oddly familiar.

HiRISE image of Valles Marineris mapped by USGS (credit: NASA/JPL/UA)

"Valles Marineris (VM) constitutes the largest canyon system in the Solar System and has a complex history. It consists of interconnected and enclosed troughs that extend from the Tharsis volcanic complex to the southern circum-Chryse outflow channels [1]. The central portion of VM (CVM, Fig. 1) includes the deepest of these troughs.

Within the CVM troughs occur the thickest exposed sections of (a) layered wall rocks on Mars, mostly lavas and other early crustal rocks [2-3], and (b) interior layered deposits (ILD), generally thought to be of sedimentary or volcanic origin [4].  The trough floors are extensively covered by landslides, fans, and eolian deposits. In addition, they appear locally dissected by channel networks, denuded by possible flooding process, and include patches of fractured terrain development."

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<![CDATA[Sol 1721: An easier planning day]]> Thu, 08 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0700

MSL drove 26 meters on Sol 1720, as planned, to a location with blocks of bedrock in the arm workspace.  Because the rover climbed another 3 meters in elevation, contact science has top priority for today's plan, with driving next in priority.  One of our strategic goals is to measure the chemistry of Murray formation rocks using APXS at elevation intervals of no more than 5 meters.  So the GEO science theme group (STG) selected a smooth, typical Murray bedrock target named "Fawn Pond" as the top priority for contact science (APXS and MAHLI observations), and planned ChemCam and Right Mastcam observations of nearby target "Kief Pond."  The GEO plan also includes a 6x2 Right Mastcam mosaic to investigate sedimentary structures at "Arey Cove" and standard post-drive imaging.  The ENV STG requested non-standard RAD activities that required lengthening the post-drive science block.  Despite concerns about power, all of these science activities fit nicely into the plan!  I'm SOWG Chair today for the third day in a row, and it's been the easiest shift so far:  There were no delays in processing the new data needed for planning this morning, and the volume of data expected to be returned in time for planning tomorrow is comfortably larger that it was on Sols 1719 and 1720. 

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 1719: Wait and Hurry Up!]]> Tue, 06 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0700

Today was an interesting day of planning: because of an issue with the computer system responsible for processing data once it is received on Earth, Curiosity's images and other data from Sol 1718 didn't arrive until well into today's planning. That meant that we had to keep the plan simple and respond rapidly once the data did arrive. It also meant that we had plenty of time to choose our favorite target names from the list!

Once the data started rolling in, we quickly chose a nice piece of bedrock in front of the rover for APXS and MAHLI to analyze and gave it the target name "Aunt Betsey's Brook". We also planned a ChemCam observation of a flaky layered rock called "Wonsqueak Harbor" and a small Mastcam mosaic of a block of layered bedrock called "Little Round Pond". After that, Curiosity will drive about 16 meters and collect post-drive imaging for targeting. After the drive we'll also take a Mastcam image of the ground near the rover (part of the ongoing campaign to systematically look at the terrain we're driving over), Mastcam images of the sun and the distant crater rim to study dust in the atmosphere, and an automatically targeted ChemCam observation. The plan will wrap up with the usual evening MARDI image of the ground under our wheels.

In the end, despite the delay in planning, we managed to put together the plan and turn it in early! We joked that we can't keep being so efficient every day or else we'll give the impression that we don't need our full planning time anymore!

by Ryan Anderson

-Ryan is a planetary scientist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of the ChemCam team on MSL.

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[Check out PBS trailer of The Farthest]]> Mon, 05 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0700 Check out this awesome PBS trailer of “The Farthest’.  You won’t want to miss it on August 23, 2017, when it's released. 'The Farthest' is a production of Crossing-The-Lines Films that chronicles the past and future of the Voyager mission. Larry Soderblom, Astrogeology’s Scientist Emeritus and long-time friend and mentor, is in the PBS movie. Mark your calendars, make sure you have popcorn in the cupboard, and meanwhile enjoy “The farthest” trailer; it’s on me.

<![CDATA[New Press Release: Wet environment once existed on early Mars]]> Fri, 02 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0700 “Among the many studies reporting water on Mars, this mapping effort stands out for its careful and detailed examination of a particularly interesting part of Mars,” said Laszlo Kestay, USGS Astrogeology Science Center Director. “The result is compelling evidence of how abundant groundwater was in this location, providing one of the essential ingredients for life.”

New USGS Maps of Mars Reveal Ancient Oases

<![CDATA[Sol 1714: Let’s try that again]]> Thu, 01 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0700 Sol 1712 Mastcam Prays Brook

Unfortunately the Sol 1713 activities were not uplinked due to an issue at the DSN station, so today’s plan is focused on recovering the activities that were planned yesterday.  The good news is that we’ll be in the same location for the start of the weekend plan, so we’ll be able to add some additional contact science targets at this interesting site.

I was the SOWG Chair today, and it was a pretty straightforward planning day since it was mostly a repeat of yesterday!  The plan kicks off with Mastcam mosaics of “The Whitecap,” “Trap Rock,” and “Pond Island” to document some nearby sedimentary structures.  Then ChemCam will target “Heron Island” and “McNeil Point” to investigate variations in chemistry within the darker gray rocks in this area.  We’ll also acquire a ChemCam RMI to assess the grain size and stratification at “Sols Cliff.”  Then Navcam will carry out a dust devil survey to monitor atmospheric activity.  Slightly later in the afternoon, we’ll acquire a Mastcam mosaic to document the contact science target “Prays Brook” and surrounding rocks, and we’ll take a multispectral observation on “Heron Island.”  The meat of the plan lies in the contact science: APXS and MAHLI observations on “Berry Cove” and “Heron Island” to assess the darker gray rocks both with and without nodules, as well as a dog’s eye MAHLI mosaic along “Prays Brook” to characterize the contact between the dark gray rocks and the underlying typical Murray formation.  It’s a juicy plan so I hope it all goes smoothly this time, and we’re looking forward to more contact science tomorrow before we hit the road to Vera Rubin Ridge.

For more information about Curiosity’s investigation of the Murray formation and the ancient lake environments that it records, check out this recent press release:

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[TKO on Control Network Challenges]]> Wed, 31 May 2017 00:00:00 -0700 The saying, “work smarter not harder,” is exactly what ISIS programmers have in mind for users when challenging the capabilities and limits of tools and technologies while writing the next best app.  Computer Scientist, Kris Becker, developed a feature-finding program called findfeatures with bells and whistles that builds a smarter network that cartographers can appreciate.   Such networks build a foundation for controlled mosaics that requires precision and accuracy. Do you know that working with thousands of images at a time can slow production and consume a multitude of work hours if a foundation (control network) is weak? The new approach used in findfeatures encompasses a reduction of both human and computer resources, and we are excited because an even better findfeatures is forthcoming!


 example control point genration and distribution




The goals of this new approach are to 1) significantly improve the image tie point measurement accuracy, 2) increase control point density, 3) reduce both human and computer resources required for producing and processing large control point networks, 4) efficiently identify and add new images to existing networks, and 5) create interpolated DEMs directly from bundle-adjusted control networks. Creating a DEM and a geometrically controlled basemap share common objectives, but creating a DEM from interpolation has one additional unique requirement: very high control point density.

Creation of the image control point network requires the most effort in the process of producing high quality controlled map products. For large datasets, the challenges are significant. Established techniques in ISIS3 are adequate when the dataset is small to modest, however as the dataset increases in size, productivity and quality are quickly diminished. Therefore, a reliable and efficient process must be applied to ensure a complete and high quality network.


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ISIS Program

<![CDATA[Humans May Adapt Ancestor's Way of Dwelling]]> Tue, 23 May 2017 00:00:00 -0700 When scientists land the US mothership on Mars in the future, where should they go for relief from the elements, atmosphere and radiation? When I last looked at data acquired from Mars Missions, without pareidolia tri-focal lenses on, no billion-year-old hotel exists for use. Space Scientist, Glen Cushion, made a great discovery for likely human habitation on Mars, even though the accommodation, at first, may not receive a five-star rating. 


“Caves are important to the future of Mars exploration because they are believed to provide shelter from a range of harsh surface conditions, maintaining near-pristine surfaces and relatively stable microclimates. Mars’s thin atmosphere and negligible magnetic field do not effectively absorb, deflect, or moderate numerous hazards, including micrometeoroid impacts, dust storms, extreme temperature variations, and high fluxes of UV, alpha particles, and cosmic rays (e.g., Mazur et al., 1978; De Angeles et al., 2002; Boston et al., 2004; Cushing et al., 2007). Because organic materials cannot continuously withstand such hazards, caves may be among the few human-accessible locations that preserve evidence of whether microbial life ever existed on Mars. Caves may also become valuable resources for human explorers, who would otherwise have to transport their own shelters or construct them in place (e.g., Horz, 1985; Coombs and Hawke, 1992; Boston et al., 2003). Additionally, exploring and characterizing Mars’s volcanic caves should enable us to constrain theories about lava-flow thermodynamics and hydrodynamics under Mars’s gravity and atmospheric conditions. Volcanic and other types of caves may also protect mineral formations that either do not form or become buried or altered under surface conditions (Hill and Forti, 1997).”

Continue reading . . .