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Planetary Science

¨  Schoolhouse Rocks program at Arizona State University
¨
  Will NASA share proof of former civilization on Mars?
¨
  Is hematite mineral naturally shiny and dark grey?
¨
  Is "rust" on a hematite mineral the same as car rust?
¨
  Does life exist on Jupiter's moon Europa?
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  Are the Viking Orbiters still in Mars orbit?  Do we need to account for them?
¨
  What is the difference between Terra Meridiani and Meridiani Planum?
¨  What happens if the MER-B rover lands away from the hematite?
¨  How will we be able to see the MER rover roaming on Mars?
¨
  What would happen if all the planets were the same size?
¨
  Why send a spacecraft mission to gather samples of the sun?
¨
  What is the significance of the Genesis moon rock?

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QUESTION:
I'd like to use
Schoolhouse Rocks as an activity in a 4th grade class.  I'll collect students' rocks, box them up and comply with your requirements.  Please confirm that you're going to analyze them with TES and post the result on the Web.

ANSWER from Michelle Mock on 10 January 2004:
Yes, Phil Christensen's Team at Arizona State University will be analyzing the rock samples with a tool similar to mini-TES as described at
http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/classroom/schoolhouse/.  This should be a very exciting activity for your students.

Have they read Phil's interviews at Imagiverse?  See:

http://imagiverse.org/interviews/philchristensen/phil_christensen_14_08_03.htm

The Mars K-12 Education Outreach program at ASU also has another exciting project for students.  See http://msip.asu.edu/ for information on the Mars Student Imaging Project where students can actually propose a site for imaging using the Mars Odyssey THEMIS instrument.

Visit http://marsed.asu.edu/ for information on teacher workshops and other educational events.  To be among the first to find out about exciting activities for students and events for educators, be sure to subscribe to their mailing list.

The Mars Exploration Rover Robotics Education project is another great Mars activity for students.  See: http://imagiverse.org/activities/robotics/mer/elem/

We would be very happy to post input from your students at Imagiverse, so please share the results of your Mars activities with us.  You may submit your items by sending to Imagiverse - Team.  We would love to receive their questions about Mars too.  They can send questions to Imagiverse - Ask The Expert

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QUESTION:
I am enjoying the voyage of the Mars Rover Spirit so much and its search for existence of water!  I would like to ask if Spirit found any proof of a former civilization or life form on Mars would that information be shared with the general public?

ANSWER from Michelle Mock on 6 January 2004:
Thank you for writing to Imagiverse and I am glad that you are enjoying the incredible adventures of Mars rover Spirit.  We are too!

Of course! Any knowledge gained from Spirit, or any of the others Mars missions, will be shared with the public.  Scientists can't wait to share all the incredible things they find out!  Mars is a very neat place.

Don't hold your breath for proof of a former civilization on Mars, unless you are referring to microbial life.  According to what scientists have been able to figure out about Mars, up to this point, it is highly unlikely that life would have evolved beyond very simple microscopic life forms.

The NASA missions focus on "follow the water", because based on what we know of life on Earth, that is the most likely place to find evidence of life (past or present).  Sediments associated with water, tell the story of how the landscape might have been formed.  So, as little Spirit prepares to start its mission, scientists on Earth can hardly wait to see what is there.

Keep watching. Spirit (and twin Opportunity) are going to be very busy over the next few months!!

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QUESTION:
Hematite jewelry and other hematite samples are usually a shiny dark grey rock.  Is this rock polished in any way to make it shiny and dark grey or is this the way it forms in nature?

ANSWER from Vicky Hamilton on 16 October 2003:
Hematite in its massive form is shiny and dark grey naturally.  It can become less so if it is exposed to the elements, and becomes pitted or collects other windblown minerals on its surface.  Hematite in jewelry is almost certainly polished to remove any textural irregularities and enhance the naturally shiny nature of the mineral, in just the same way as is done for most minerals.  The bubbly texture that is sometime apparent is related to how the hematite forms.  In such cases, it usually formed in a space (much like big quartz crystals), rather than in between other minerals, and has the ability to grow crystals in that form.

Victoria E. Hamilton
Assistant Professor
Hawai'i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology
University of Hawai'i

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QUESTION:
I have observed rust on a sample of hematite, an iron-bearing mineral.  How is the rust on hematite chemically like the "ordinary" rust, say, on an automobile frame?

ANSWER from Vicky Hamilton on 16 October 2003:
They're the same.  The chemical formula is Fe2O3.

Victoria E. Hamilton
Assistant Professor
Hawai'i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology
University of Hawai'i

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QUESTION:
Is it true that it is very probable that life exists and flourishes on Jupiter's moon Europa?

ANSWER from Michelle Mock 23 September 2003:
It's very possible that life exists on Europa, one of the Jovian moons.  For that reason, before the spacecraft Galileo ran out of fuel, it was commanded to dive into the atmosphere of the planet Jupiter.  The decision to terminate the mission in a fiery death had a dual benefit for science.  First, if it had been left on its own, there was a slight possibility that Galileo could eventually collide with one of the Jovian moons (e.g., Europa) and contaminate the moon with organisms from Earth.  By terminating the mission in a controlled fashion, this was averted.  The second benefit was the incredible data and photographs that were sent back to Earth in the last hours and minutes of the mission.  Scientists and others will be studying this data for many years to come.

For more information on Galileo and Europa, see:  http://galileo.jpl.nasa.gov/

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QUESTION:
My dad and I were talking about the latest MER rovers going to Mars and I asked him if any prior missions were still in Mars orbit.  He said he wasn't sure but he didn't think so.  When we send spacecraft to Mars, do we have to account for previous missions that are already in orbit?  Are the Viking still in orbit around Mars?

ANSWER from Michelle Mock on 10 August 2003:
In addition to the two rovers headed for Mars, two NASA spacecraft are currently orbiting the planet actively sending back photographs and data.

Mars Global Surveyor, which launched in late 1996 and arrived in the fall of 1997 is well into its extended mission and still sending back incredible photographs and other data.  Dr. Michael Malin, Principal Investigator for the MOC camera, spoke about the current activities of MGS at a lecture I attended at Caltech last month.  They are now able to rotate the spacecraft to take images of the earth and other planets from Mars.  They are also able to situate the spacecraft in such a way that they can account for the spin of the Mars and movement of the spacecraft, using a technique he called "image motion compensation" to take higher resolution photographs that the Project never thought were possible.

Mars Odyssey launched to Mars in April of 2001.  After arriving at Mars, it used a technique called aerobraking to put itself in a nice tight orbit for mapping the planet.  It turned on its science instruments in February 2002 and has been sending back a wealth of information and new photographs ever since.  Phil Christensen, Principal Investigator for the THEMIS instrument said that, believe it or not, it is still really early in the mission.

The two NASA rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are currently in good health heading towards landings in January 2004.  The NASA spacecraft will be joined by spacecraft from the European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan, to make Mars a very busy place in the upcoming years.  In 2005, NASA will send another orbiter to Mars.  In 2007 another lander, called Phoenix will go.

For information on Mars exploration, go to http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/.  Be sure to check out the Mars pages at Imagiverse:  http://imagiverse.org/mars/.  Regarding the Viking Orbiters, good question!  I need to do some further research or ask one of our experts.  In some instances, a spacecraft will be intentionally crashed into a planet or asteroid to do some final science before it runs out of power.  Most of the time, just like the satelites that we have orbiting around Earth, the spacecraft eventually runs out of power and it is left in an orbit which eventually decays and the spacecraft falls to the planet.  With Viking, I believe they were just left in orbit and may still be there.  According to http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/missions/past/viking.html:

Viking Orbiter 1 continued for four years and 1,489 orbits of Mars, concluding its mission August 7, 1980, while Viking Orbiter 2 functioned until July 25, 1978."

[Corrected 9 September 2003.  For additional information, see: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/releases/80-83/release_1980_0940.html]

ANSWER from Stephanie Wong on 10 August 2003:
If what you are asking is whether there will be a "traffic jam" on Mars, and whether the mission team has to account for possible "close encounters" with previous spacecraft, I guess, yes, they would consider it, but it would be of little concern.  There is a lot of "area" around Mars to orbit in, and there is a miniscule chance that a new orbiter's trajectory would intersect a functioning or dormant orbiter's path.  Each mission has its own unique "orbital elements" that give unique orbits.  Of course, for all the satellites and space junk orbiting Earth, that is another story.

What is particularly valuable to having a number of spacecraft at Mars functioning at the SAME time is that the observations overlap.  They can work in tandem.  For example, something interesting that Mars Global Surveyor finds can be followed up with observations by Mars Odyssey, which has a different set of instruments that gives another perspective.  Two "sets of eyes" are much better than one.

The Viking Orbiters are still lying dormant in orbit around Mars.  According to the National Space Science Data Center's website:

"On 7 August 1980 Viking 1 Orbiter was running low on attitude control gas and its orbit was raised from 357 x 33943 km to 320 x 56000 km to prevent impact with Mars and possible contamination until the year 2019.  Operations were terminated on 17 August 1980 after 1485 orbits."

And for the Viking 2 Orbiter:
"The orbiter developed a leak in its propulsion system that vented its attitude control gas.  It was placed in a 302 x 33176 km orbit and turned off on 25 July 1978 after returning almost 16,000 images in 706 orbits around Mars."

With regards to the landers, the Viking 1 lander rests at Chryse Planitia while the Viking 2 lander is at Utopia Planitia.  All four Viking spacecraft had successful missions, lasting many years, sending back abundant information about Mars.

Reference: http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/planets/marspage.html

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QUESTION:
What is the difference between Terra Meridiani and Meridiani Planum?  What is the correct name of the landing site?

ANSWER from Steve Squyres on 27 June 2003 on NASADirect!:
The correct name of the landing site is Meridiani Planum.  Terra Meridiani is an old name; it's one that's been around since very early in the days of Mars exploration and it refers to the whole broad Meridiani region.  Meridiani got its name from the fact that the zero degree line of longitude, the meridian on Mars, runs right through that location.  So that big area near the equator is called Terra Meridiani - the specific plateau or plane, which Latin for plane is planum, that we're landing on - is called Meridiani Planum.  So that is the right name for the landing site.

Steve Squyres
Planetary Scientist
Cornell University
New York

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QUESTION:
When Opportunity lands at Meridiani Planum, what will you do if it lands far away from the hematite?  If you find olivine at either of the two rover sites, would that change the scientists' theories about the sites?

ANSWER from Steve Squyres on 27 June 2003 on NASADirect!:
Well, with respect to what we would do if we found we weren't near hematite, that's the reason why we have wheels.  There is definitely a possibility that there will be no hematite bearing rocks that are within easy and immediate reach, but we have got a lot of ability to drive this rover.  We can drive for hundreds of meters across the surface if we need to, and so we can look off into the distance using our instruments, find where we think hematite bearing minerals are and then actually drive over to them.  With respect to olivine, actually I don't think that will change things too much.  Olivine is a mineral that is found in a lot of very common rocks.  Basalt, which is a common igneous rock, has olivine in it.  And we expect a lot of that stuff to be there.  The question is not what are the main rocks, the volcanic rocks and so forth; the question is what are the trace minerals, the minerals that are present in lower abundances, and how much of those there are, because those are the ones that are more likely to tell us about water.

Steve Squyres
Planetary Scientist
Cornell University
New York

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QUESTION:
Since the only cameras are on the rover itself, will you have any way of showing what the rover looks like roaming on Mars? (i.e., will you be using digital animation to give the public a feel for what the rovers look like on the surface?)

ANSWER from Steve Squyres on 27 June 2003 on NASADirect!:
Well, there are a couple ways we can do that. One thing, of course, is that the rover can actually take pictures of itself.  Those cameras are mounted high on the mast and if they look down or around they can get a very good view of the solar arrays.  We've also got some nice cameras out in front that will actually show the arm nicely as it deploys.  So we will actually be able to do a fairly good job of photographing the rover ourselves.  We probably will try to do some digital animations as well.  We have made some animations already of what we think the rover is going to look like as it drives around Mars, and I anticipate once we get real Mars data we will continue with that.

Steve Squyres
Planetary Scientist
Cornell University
New York

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QUESTION:
What would happen if all the planets were the same size?

ANSWER from Wendy Wooten on 6 February 2003:
The size of the planets would affect the gravitational field around them.  The force of gravity is directly proportional to the mass of the body that is setting up the field.  If the planets all became as big as Jupiter or Saturn, gravity on the other planets would increase.  It would not increase so much as to have an effect on the other planets, but the moons that orbit the planets would have a greater force on them, so they would have to travel faster to stay in orbit or else they would fall into the planets.  On the other hand, if the planets were all as small as Pluto, they would have less gravitational force on their moons, and they would have to orbit slower or else they would travel off into space.

Wendy Wooten
Educator
Southern California

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QUESTION:
We live in California.  California is in the United States.  The United States is on the Earth.  The Earth is spinning around the sun.

We heard that a space craft was going to the sun to take a piece of it and bring it back to earth.  We want to know why anyone would want to get a piece of the sun.  Do you know why?

ANSWER from Jacinta Behne on 11 September 2002:
Many thanks for your interest in the Genesis mission.  There are 3 science objectives that the mission hopes to accomplish.

  • To obtain precise measures of solar isotopic abundances.
  • (Genesis will measure isotopic compositions of oxygen, nitrogen, and noble gases. These data will enable scientists to better understand the isotopic variations in meteorites, comets, lunar samples, and planetary atmospheres.)
  • To obtain greatly improved measures of solar elemental abundances.
  • To provide a reservoir of solar matter for 21st century science research, eliminating the need for future solar wind sample return mission.

What this means is that the mission scientists want to learn exactly what the sun is made of.  They believe that the sun holds some clues as to what other objects in space are made of, including meteors, comets, and the like.

Have you visited Genesis Kids?  There are several good stories about the sun and the Genesis mission, as well as some online activities.  You will find it at: http://www.genesismission.org/product/genesis_kids/index.html

Jacinta Behne
Senior Consultant
Genesis Education and Public Outreach

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QUESTION:
What is the significance of the Genesis rock found by the Apollo 15 astronauts?

ANSWER from Larry Kellogg on 11 July 2002
It gives us an idea of just how old the Moon is.

Looking at the Moon through a telescope let geologists get an idea of what happened on the surface we could see.  Craters, lava flows, craters, overlapping rays of debris from meteor impacts, let them say one place might be older or younger than another.

Just how old and of what materials, might give a better idea of how the Moon was formed.  Finding a rock on the Moon that came from down deep inside the Moon would let us date that rock sample and find out how old the Moon really was.

On Earth most of the rocks are newer than when the Earth was first formed because we have volcanoes that bring molten rock to the top that gives a new date for forming when it cools.  Water then breaks it down and washes it away to form new sedimentary rock.  Earthquakes and tectonic plates moving cause folding of the rock that then pushes surfaces down.  This gives us a renewing surface over geologic time.

The Moon doesn't have this activity.  What was there in the beginning has only been disturbed by incoming meteors and some early lava flows.  Knowing how the Moon was formed might help tell us how the Moon was formed and what it was like back at the beginning of our solar system.

So how old is the Moon?  The "Genesis Rock," collected on Apollo 15, is almost pure anorthosite, a type of rock that on Earth would be formed at great depths.  It is believed to represent a piece of the Moon's early crust.  Argon-argon dating found an age of crystallization of approximately 4.0 billion years.  This type of dating can produce lower than actual ages; so the "Genesis Rock" may be older -- closer to 4.4 to 4.5 billion years.  This puts the Moon's beginning back to the time when it is thought our solar nebula began to clump and form planets and would put the formation of the Moon at about the same time Earth was formed.

You can see how excited the astronauts were in finding the "Genesis Rock" if you look at the transcripts from the Apollo 15 mission:
http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/alsj/a15/a15.spur.html

Here are two views of the picture of the "Genesis Rock":
http://images.jsc.nasa.gov/images/pao/AS15/10075776.htm
http://www.apolloexplorer.co.uk/photo/html/as15/10075775.htm

More information on the web:
http://euromin.w3sites.net/Nouveau_site/gisements/extra/GISEXTe.htm
Lunar mineralogy
http://silver.neep.wisc.edu/~neep602/lecture12.html

Larry Kellogg
Senior Systems Engineer
NASA Ames Research Center
Moffett Field, California

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Last Updated:
24 May 2004
 

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