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research questions about mars

Mars Questions? We’ve Got Answers.

We all have a lot of questions about Mars. Recently, at a National Geographic Live event in Seattle , we collected quite a few. Luckily for us, Dr. Ray Arvidson, planetary geologist and professor at Washington University in St. Louis , has answers! Dr. Arvidson directs the Earth and Planetary Remote Sensing Laboratory , and has worked on the Mars Exploration Rover ( Spirit and Opportunity ) and the Mars Science Laboratory ( Curiosity Rover ). 

research questions about mars

If Mars is farther from the sun than Earth, why is water still on Earth?  Patrick, age 10

H 2 O exists as gas, liquid (water), and ice on Earth because our planet is warm relative to Mars. It is closer to the sun than Mars and has a warming atmosphere. On Mars, H 2 O today can only exist as gas and ice because the atmosphere is very thin and Mars is 1.54 times farther from the sun as compared to Earth. It makes Mars very cold. In the past when Mars had a dense atmosphere it was warmer and water could exist on the surface.

Have there been any signs of life on Mars?  Tim, age 9

We have not seen any definitive signs of life on Mars yet. On the other hand, we have not had the right kinds of equipment on landers and rovers to test directly for life. Some of the rocks we have been examining with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers prove that Mars was warm and wet in the past and likely was habitable. Next, we will seek for signs of ancient life directly, probably using rovers in the 2020s.

research questions about mars

I’m 14. I’m a freshman at Ballard High School. I want to be in the control room. I want to be there, engineering, solving problems. I’ve wanted to do this for some time. What do I have to do to get there? Olivia, age 14

Pursue your passions for studies, do well, and you will get where you want to go. Most of the control room workers are engineers and scientists, so you might pursue these directions for study.

research questions about mars

How does a planet lose its atmosphere? Is it possible to recreate or force one once lost? How is it different than what we’ve done to Earth as a species?

Mars lost some of its atmosphere when its internal magnetic field died as the internal liquid iron-nickel core froze. With no magnetic field, the solar wind started stripping away the atmosphere. Also, the atmosphere was converted into rocks by weathering—for example, perhaps making limestones (calcium carbonate). And very light elements, like hydrogen, can just escape from the gravitational pull of the planet. Earth is not losing much of its atmosphere to space because our planet still has an outer core of liquid iron and nickel . This makes a strong magnetic field that keeps the solar wind from stripping away our atmosphere. Also, volcanoes keep replenishing some atmospheric gases.

What’s the warmest place on Mars? If/when we colonize Mars, why wouldn’t we colonize at that warm place? Gracie, age 14

The equator in low regions would be warmest, particularly if the places are dark and absorb a lot of sunlight. These might be good places for a human expedition.

research questions about mars

What’s the chance of an asteroid hitting a base?  Milo, age 10

Asteroids and comets and debris from them are hitting all of the planets and moons all the time —mainly very small particles that burn up in the atmospheres of planets and moons that have atmospheres. Larger objects hitting Mars and other planets are really very rare events and very unlikely that one will hit a base.

What makes the North Pole on Mars white? Snow, ice, or something else?  Charles, age 5

The winter poles on Mars are covered by ice made of frozen carbon dioxide. Very bright indeed.

research questions about mars

Do you think there is life on Mars right now?  Oliver, age 7

I think it is much more likely that low forms of life, like microbes, existed early on Mars , when it was warm and wet as compared to the very cold, dry planet we know today.

If we were to sublimate both polar ice caps on MARS (via nukes or any means) would we create an atmosphere? Would Mars be more habitable? Jimmy, age 22

Making the poles of Mars sublimate (go from ice to vapor) by heating them would put both carbon dioxide and water vapor into the atmosphere. However, it is likely that these gases would then react with rocks and be consumed over time. For example, carbon dioxide dissolved in liquid water makes carbonic acid, which is a main reason that rocks are Earth are chemically weathered . The carbon is converted into limestone and taken out of the atmosphere.

research questions about mars

How would you terraform Venus? Sam, age 6

Yikes, the Venusian surface is hotter than your oven! I do not think it is possible to terraform Venus. Mars would be hard enough, maybe even impossible.

What is the most likely place for life on Mars? Nessa, age 11

Warm, wet areas like subsurface water deposits.

research questions about mars

What is the easiest way to get around on Mars? Nathan, age 12

I like rovers to get along on the surface. Like cars on Mars!

Can you really change Mars? William, age 7

Mars is huge. It has the surface area of Earth’s continents. I doubt we could change it much in terms of terraforming.

Why was Mars able to sustain lakes and rivers ages ago, but cannot now? Isn’t it too cold, and wasn’t it always?

Warm wet areas today on Mars are likely to be subsurface deposits of liquid water and ice. In the past, Mars had active volcanoes. These emitted gases that kept the atmosphere warm and wet by greenhouse warming . Also, it had long ago a magnetic field that kept the solar wind from stripping away the protective atmosphere.

How about the peroxide in Mars soil? What about the lack of N2?

Chlorine has been found in all soils examined by landers and rovers on Mars. And there are strong indications that at least some of the chlorine exists in hydrated perchlorates. These compounds can be reactive and may explain the odd behavior of soils when wet, perhaps more likely than peroxides. There is clear evidence from landed and orbital measurements that a lot of nitrogen has been stripped away from the atmosphere by the solar wind.

Could you talk about the time and speed it would take to go 140 million miles?

You go into orbit about the sun to get to Mars and travel at a few miles/second, and even then it takes months to get to the Red Planet.

With its lower gravity, will Mars ever be able to have the atmospheric air pressure for liquid water?

Mars had a higher atmospheric pressure in the past, and greenhouse gases that kept the surface warm enough to be warm and wet. Lower gravity was not the reason this changed, although some lighter molecules were lost to space. Rather, with the demise of the magnetic field, the solar wind started stripping away the atmosphere. Also as volcanism slowed down, less gas was emitted into the atmosphere. All in all these changes put the Red Planet into the deep freeze.

research questions about mars

I have heard planets such as Io and Europa could potentially be inhabited. Why do we not strive to colonize those planets?

We are intending to robotically explore Europa, one of the Galilean moons of Jupiter. The reason is that we have evidence from the Galileo orbiter around Europa that this moon has an ocean beneath a water ice crust. Maybe subsurface life exists. Currently, NASA is planning the Europa Clipper mission to fly close by Europa to make detailed measurements. And there is discussion of a Europa lander to sample the crust, where water and maybe some salts have recently come up through the subsurface oceans through fractures . Io is interesting but has lots of noxious gases and lots of active volcanoes .

Other than Mars and Earth, Venus and our moon have evidence of water. Should we make the journey to these entities?

Venus has water in its atmosphere and also sulfuric acid. The moon has permanent water ice deposits at its poles. There are plans to pursue measurements from orbiters and landers for both objects. Some measurements have also been done in the past.

Are there rovers from other countries currently on Mars, or will that be in the near future?

NASA has the only rovers on Mars. The European Space Agency ( a consortium of western European countries) is building the ExoMars rover , which will launch to Mars in 2020.

No oxygen or water on Mars—is that easily solved?

There are both oxygen and water on Mars, as ices and vapor and bound in rocks. Processing to refine oxygen and water is the issue. How will it be done? The process is called in situ resource utilization and it is under intense study.

research questions about mars

Given the importance of selecting a single optimum landing site for human exploration, is a robotic mission planned to confirm the site’s suitability for advancing science?

Humans will not go to a landing site until it has been explored robotically. In fact, robots will likely construct the habitats humans will live in, preparing the shelters and other infrastructure needed before a human mission to the red planet.

Would it be best to focus on Mars as “moon, then Mars” since there are a lot of similarities with moon and Mars and the moon is just three days away? Would the moon be a good training ground?

Moon first or direct to Mars? Both have fierce advocates and detailed architectures. Time and money will guide the best path to the Red Planet.

Is Curiosity an international program, and is the info from Curiosity shared?

Curiosity is a NASA mission with international participation for instruments, including Spain, France, and Russia.

Can we use nuclear power to overcome some of our energy needs for rockets and Mars colonies?

Yes indeed, nuclear propulsion will speed up the transit time to Mars and nuclear energy will

provide power on the surface.

Do you know why water on Mars went away?  Jack, age 9

Some was lost to space and some froze as ice on and beneath the surface.

research questions about mars

Have you heard to the idea to add greenhouse gases to Mars’ atmosphere to warm it up? Henry, age 12

This is called terraforming and may work, but the planet is so big and so complicated that I suspect it is not possible. And we do not understand the consequences associated with making it warm.

Does Mars have tectonic plates?

Mars never seems to have had plate tectonics. In fact Earth seems to be the odd planet in that it definitely has tectonic plates and sheds a lot of its internal heat through plate tectonics, whereas our other planets do not seem to follow this path. They seem to be mainly one plate planets.

Why is Mars considered a better prospect for habitability than Earth’s moon?

Because Mars was warm and wet in the past and water is the elixir of life . Earth’s moon was always dry and cold, with just a bit of water ice trapped permanently in shadowed areas in the polar regions.

To learn more about how humans will travel to and live on Mars, please check out the new Nat Geo book  MARS: Our Future on the Red Planet   and our interactive Mars globe and downloadable educator guide !

research questions about mars

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13 thoughts on “ Mars Questions? We’ve Got Answers. ”

What was the worst-est landing on Mars

  • Pingback: BACKGROUND INFORMATION – Should space agencies prioritize a human expedition to Mars?

If we can terraform Mars we cure global warming and world hunger a million, billion or trillion times easier. Just do that simple task first.

I was just reading page 27 in secrets of the red planet astronomy magazine and it states “Odyssey’s budgetary shakedown is a part of a broader realignment of NASA’s Mars exploration strategy that focuses on bringing back samples from Mars — something for which scientists have been avoiding for decades.” Why avoid it when you can get so close to whatever it s out there on Mars?! Just like Glaze said “we are far, far closer than we’ve ever been to making this a reality.” Yes and that just means that you should consider taking that chance of a small sample to see what’s out there on Mars! It could lead you to a better understanding of how to build a safe environment for humans to thrive on n Mars. And how would you loose a lot by “shutting off [odyssey]”?

What do you think will happen to Mars when humanity takes its first step?

Do you think that one day what happened to Mars will happen to Earth?

Will humanity do the same thing that we did to the Moon, to Mars?

When/if we travel to Mars, does that mean that we will have new sources for things like nickle or iron?

If living on Mars is possible, then it took many of years while reaching on it. What if we all are going to shift on Mars and while doing so any spacecraft got crash so what to do

My question:

Do you think according to nasa aerospace engineering,

we can achieve successful space flight mission to mars in the future, if we make modification to spacecraft technology with earth’s natural resources in a way logically and technically speaking, to get to mars despite spacecraft disaster. Does this make any sense?

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Mars Exploration

For over 60 years, NASA has been in pursuit of answering science's biggest questions – was, or is , Mars a habitable world? 

Mars Exploration Science Goals

The key to understanding the past, present or future potential for life on Mars can be found in NASA’s four broad, overarching goals for Mars exploration.

Water carved channels and transported sediments form fans and deltas within lake basins in this image of Mars' Jezero crater.

Mars is the only planet we know of inhabited entirely by robots.

Artist's concept depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars.

From Robots to Humans

Recorded observations of Mars date back more than 4,000 years. Led by our curiosity of the cosmos, NASA has sent a carefully selected international fleet of robotic orbiters, landers and rovers to keep a continuous flow of scientific information and discovery from Mars. The science and technology developed through Mars Exploration missions will enable humans to one day explore the Red Planet in person. Artist's concept depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars.

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NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) are planning ways to bring the first samples of Mars material back to Earth for detailed study.

Rover on Mars.

EXOMars Program

ESA’s (European Space Agency) Exobiology on Mars program consists of two missions: Trace Gas Orbiter and the Rosalind Franklin rover.

InSight

InSight was the first space robotic explorer to study in-depth the "inner space" of Mars: its crust, mantle, and core. (2018-2022)

artist's concept of MAVEN and Mars

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Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

MRO studies the planet's atmosphere and terrain from orbit and serves as a key data relay station for other Mars missions. (2005-present)

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Mars Science Laboratory: Curiosity Rover

Curiosity is investigating Mars to determine whether the Red Planet ever was habitable to microbial life. (2011-present)

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Sprit rover on Mars, artist rendition

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A pair of Mars rovers that used field geology and atmospheric observations as they looked for signs of ancient water activity. (2003-2010)

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NASA is contributing advanced radar and radio relay systems to this ESA-ASI mission searching for sub-surface water from Mars orbit. (2003-present)

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Mars Polar Lander's mission was to dig for water ice near the edge of the south polar cap and deploy two small surface probes, but all spacecraft were lost on arrival. (1999)

Spacecraft in orbit over Mars.

Mars Climate Orbiter

Designed to function as an interplanetary weather satellite and a communications relay for Mars Polar Lander, Mars Climate Orbiter was lost on arrival after entering the atmosphere too low. (1999-1999)

Mars Global Surveyor's Articulated High Gain Antenna.

Mars Global Surveyor

Mars Global Surveyor studied the entire Martian surface, atmosphere, and interior, discovering repeatable weather patterns, gully formation, new boulder tracks, and recent impact craters. (1996-2006)

Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner rover on Mars in 1997.

Mars Pathfinder

Mars Pathfinder demonstrated a new way to deliver an instrumented lander, and the first robotic rover, to the planet's surface, from which it returned data long past its primary design life. (1996-1997)

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Mars Observer

Mars Observer was designed to study the geology, geophysics, and climate of Mars, but contact with the spacecraft was lost shortly before it was set to enter orbit around the planet. (1992-1993)

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Vikings 1 & 2

The first U.S. mission to land a spacecraft safely on Mars and return images of the surface, Viking 1 was part of a pair of probes seeking signs of life on Mars. (1975-1982 )

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Mars Mariner Missions

NASA's Mariner 9, launched days after Mariner 8, was the first spacecraft to orbit another planet and to orbit Mars, mapping 85% of the surface. (1971-1972)

The Future of Mars

NASA is reimagining the future of Mars exploration, driving new scientific discoveries, and preparing for humans on Mars. NASA’s Mars Exploration Program will focus the next two decades on its science-driven systemic approach on these strategic goals: exploring for potential life, understanding the geology and climate of Mars, and preparation for human exploration.

Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at Airfield Mu. The helicopter is just below and to the left of center in the image. It is about 720 feet (220 meters) away from the rover. The approximately 4-foot-wide (1.2-meter-wide) split boulder, which appears to be directly in front and to the right of the helicopter, is actually about 380 feet (115 meters) in front of the rotorcraft.

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Kate Howells • Feb 15, 2021

Life on Mars: Your Questions Answered

Is there life on Mars ? 

We humans have long been fascinated by this question. In 1895, astronomer Percival Lowel  mistakenly documented  what he believed were a series of artificial canals crisscrossing the planet. The idea that our neighboring planet might be home to intelligent beings captured imaginations around the world and spurred numerous visions of Mars , some peaceful and others malevolent. 

Fast-forward to the present day when humans have sent more spacecraft to study Mars than any other planet beyond Earth. To this day there is no evidence of life on Mars, but the search hasn’t stopped. Just as life itself evolves, so too have the ways we look for it. Today, the red planet is still a prime target in the search for life .

What is Mars like today?

Mars is on average inhospitably cold, with average temperatures of -63 ° C (-81 ° F). Summer highs occasionally reach 30°C (86° F), but it's still no picnic; the planet’s atmosphere is 95.3% carbon dioxide, and without a magnetic field its surface is bombarded by the Sun’s radiation. The low atmospheric pressure combined with cold temperatures also mean liquid water is not stable at the surface. Life as we know it cannot exist in these conditions. 

What was Mars like in the past?

Mars wasn't always this inhospitable to life. We think Mars once had a molten core that generated a magnetic field. This, in turn, protected the surface from radiation and supported a thicker atmosphere that kept the planet warm. 

There is also strong evidence that between 3 and 4 billion years ago , Mars had water on its surface. We can see valleys carved by rivers, pebbles that formed in streams, and piles of sediment that could have come from basins and deltas. Under these conditions, life could have been possible. 

About 3 billion years ago, Mars lost its protective magnetic field. Solar radiation stripped off most of the planet’s atmosphere , the liquid water disappeared, and Mars turned into the cold, dry desert we see today. 

Did life exist on Mars in the past?

Space missions like NASA’s Curiosity rover have determined that some portions of Mars were habitable for at least some periods of time long ago. But just because something could live there didn’t mean anything did. Without direct evidence of past life, we can't know whether Mars was ever inhabited. 

NASA’s Perseverance rover is searching for just that. It is exploring Jezero crater, a former lakebed and river delta, to look for ancient life immortalized in microscopic fossils. Perseverance is also stowing samples for future missions to return to Earth , where laboratories around the world will be able to study them in greater depth.

Does life exist on Mars now?

There is a slim chance that microbial life exists on Mars today, perhaps under the planet’s ice caps or in subsurface lakes detected by spacecraft like the European Space Agency’s Mars Express. Locations like these could protect life from the harsh conditions on the planet's surface. 

Because the kind of life that we think could exist on Mars today is microbial, it wouldn’t be spotted by the cameras of an orbiting spacecraft. Instead, there are ways we could detect it indirectly through chemical signatures linked to life called biosignatures. 

One such biosignature is methane, which can be created by both biological and geological processes. Curiosity has detected methane near its landing site in Gale Crater, but this isn't conclusive; the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Express Orbiter has not found signs of the chemical in Mars’ atmosphere.

Could humans bring life to Mars?

When sending spacecraft to Mars to look for signs of life, it’s extremely important to make sure we don’t bring microbes along with us. Even though it takes months for a spacecraft to travel to Mars, hardy microorganisms could potentially survive the journey .

Every mission that lands on Mars must be thoroughly sterilized before it leaves Earth. Otherwise, instruments looking for signs of life might be fooled by life that came along with the spacecraft. Even worse, there is a slim but real possibility that Earthling microbes could survive and thrive on Mars, potentially interfering with any lifeforms that might already exist there.

The risk of contaminating Mars with Earthling microbes becomes even greater when considering future human missions to Mars. Human bodies are teeming with microbes, and it would be nearly impossible to contain them within a crewed Martian outpost. NASA, international space agencies, and private companies must work together to create planetary protection guidelines that balance the benefits of human exploration with the risk of contamination.

Could life on Earth have come from Mars?

We don’t know exactly how life on Earth began . The panspermia hypothesis suggests that life could have started elsewhere in the universe and traveled to Earth via asteroids, comets, and other small worlds . If Mars was indeed once home to life, it could have seeded our own planet with microbes embedded in Martian rocks that were knocked off the planet by another impactor.

A discovery in 1996 made panspermia seem particularly possible. Scientists studying a Martian meteorite known as ALH84001 found what looked like microbial fossils similar to ones found on Earth . Most experts ultimately agreed that alternative explanations for the structures were possible and that the meteorite was not a definitive indication of life. Nevertheless, the discovery arguably yielded a positive side effect: public excitement spurred investment in Mars research that continues to yield amazing discoveries today.

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  • Published: 16 March 2021

Mars towards the future

Nature Astronomy volume  5 ,  page 209 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

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Three spacecraft from three different nations arrived at Mars in February 2021. Two of those nations are newcomers to Mars and the third successfully set out the path for a Mars sample return.

Despite regular launch opportunities every 26 months, every mission to Mars invariably captures headlines in the news and huge interest from the public. The 2020 launch window, however, actually had several novelties that distinguished it from the others — even without considering that it happened in the midst of a global pandemic.

First of all, this year has been unusually busy. Mars has not seen so much incoming traffic since 2003. Moreover, all three missions were successful, showing that we are getting more confident in delivering probes to Mars without glitches. Mars has long enjoyed the reputation of being a spacecraft-eating ghoul, but maybe it is time to bury this cliché: only one of the 15 missions sent to Mars since 2000 fully failed by not leaving Earth’s orbit.

One of the most significant features of the 2020 launch window is the appearance of new actors. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and China have respectively become the fifth and sixth countries ever to reach Mars. Like the European Space Agency (ESA) and India, they succeeded at the first attempt. The widening of the exclusive club of nations exploring beyond the Earth–Moon system is always welcome, although we are far from the ‘democratization of deep space’ that we are experiencing for Earth’s orbit and have started to glimpse for the Moon.

Interestingly, the two nations opted for very different approaches to their Mars debut. The Mars Hope Probe from the UAE was conceived to answer very specific scientific questions linked to the vertical connections within the atmosphere, from the troposphere to atmospheric escape. In this sense, it has some overlap with NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter, and indeed the UAE has worked closely with members of the MAVEN team in the United States. International collaboration and knowledge exchange have been key points of the Hope mission. Tianwen-1 is instead all Chinese and also a very ambitious first attempt, consisting of a full orbiter–lander–rover package. The lander–rover composite is planned to land in Utopia Planitia in May 2021 after a thorough reconnaissance of the area by the orbiter aimed at identifying the best landing site according to scientific and technical criteria. Its scientific objectives are very different from — and complementary to — Hope’s, focusing on surface and shallow sub-surface processes and environment.

Compared to the UAE and China, NASA is the big veteran of Mars exploration. However, the Perseverance rover marks a distinct change in perspective for the US space agency. The ‘follow the water’ mantra that drove NASA’s Mars exploration since the 1990s is becoming obsolete, as we ‘follow habitability’ now. The Curiosity rover started this new trend, and Perseverance is consolidating it. But above all, while the science is surely going to be exciting, Perseverance has a clear forward-looking concept that distinguishes it from NASA’s previous rovers. The most important innovation by far is the first step towards a Mars sample return.

Actual projects for a Martian sample return have struggled to materialize due to the magnitude of its technical challenges. Now we have a clear plan: a three-step sequence (of which Perseverance carries out the first) that spans the whole decade and involves a tight collaboration between NASA and ESA. Much of Perseverance’s design revolves around sample return. The rover will drill and collect samples that will be stored in cylinders and left on the Martian surface. Cleverly, the rover will carry these samples from the different acquisition points over to a single caching area, ready for collection by the future ‘fetch’ rover. The scientific payload is also tailored for this purpose: a suite of cameras and spectrometers will allow the identification of the most interesting rocks to sample, and in situ sample analysis facilities were sacrificed to make space for the tube collection and storage. Mars sample return has always been considered at risk of being bypassed because of its high costs, but now that it is in motion it will be much harder to stop.

Perseverance’s look to the future goes beyond sample return, containing as it does a rather unprecedented set of technology experiments. First, the Ingenuity helicopter will try to perform the first controlled flight on another planet as a standalone and autonomous system. Considering the extremely thin and dust-laden atmosphere of Mars, success is not a given and Ingenuity will be a crucial test for any future airborne technology. In addition, the rover contains MOXIE (the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), which is designed to release oxygen into the atmosphere of Mars after synthesizing it from locally harvested CO 2 . This is the first attempt to consciously affect the environment of a planet. While MOXIE is just a technology demonstrator and will not have any actual impact on the atmosphere of Mars, it is a first test of how we could utilize local resources to support future human missions and habitation. Resource utilization on Mars is the next challenge and, in addition to Perseverance, there are already some ongoing projects, in particular concerning water reservoirs. In this issue we present an effort to map the likelihood of water ice availability in the shallow subsurface of Mars and just last month the US, Italian, Japanese and Canadian space agencies announced a partnership for an International Mars Ice Mapper orbiter that could fly as early as 2026.

The 2020 launch window saw exciting new perspectives open up for Mars exploration, and this trend will continue in the already busy next launch windows. Martian exploration has always been fertile terrain for international scientific collaboration: we hope that these novelties will not change that and the way forward will be inclusive and concordant.

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Mars towards the future. Nat Astron 5 , 209 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-021-01337-9

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“Is there life on Mars?” is a question people have asked for more than a century. But in order to finally get the answer, we have to know what to look for and where to go on the planet to look for evidence of past life. With the Perseverance rover set to land on Mars on February 18, 2021, we are finally in a position to know where to go, what to look for, and knowing whether there is, or ever was, life on the Red Planet.

Perseverance samples rocks with its attatched drill.

Science fiction aside, we know that there were not ancient civilizations or a population of little green people on Mars. So, what sort of things do we need to look for to know whether there was ever life on Mars? Fortunately, a robust Mars exploration program, including orbiters, landers, and rovers, has enabled detailed mapping of the planet and constrained important information about the environment.

We now know that there were times in the ancient past on Mars when conditions were wetter and at least a little warmer than the fairly inhospitable conditions that are present today. And there were once habitable environments that existed on the surface. For example, the Curiosity rover has shown that more than three billion years ago, Gale crater was the location of a lake  that held water likely suitable for sustaining life. Armed with information about the conditions and chemical environments on the surface, the Perseverance rover is outfitted with a science payload of instruments finely tuned for extracting information related to any biosignatures that might be present and signal the occurrence of life .

Interior and rim of Gale crater on Mars

Panoramic view of the interior and rim of Gale crater. Image generated from pictures captured by the Curiosity rover.

But where should we go on Mars to maximize the chances of accessing the rocks most likely to have held and preserve any evidence of past life? To get at that answer, I co-led a series of workshops attended by the Mars science community to consider various candidate landing sites and help determine which one had the highest potential for preserving evidence of past life. Using data from Mars orbiters coupled with more detailed information from landers and rovers, we started with around thirty candidate sites and narrowed the list over the course of four workshops and five years. Some sites were clearly less viable than others and were weeded out fairly quickly. But once the discussion focused on a couple of different types of potentially viable sites, the process became much tougher. In the end, the science community felt—and the Perseverance mission and NASA agreed—that Jezero crater was the best place to look for evidence of past life on Mars.

An aerial shot of red, dusky terrain

This image shows the remains of an ancient delta in Mars' Jezero Crater, which NASA's Perseverance Mars rover will explore for signs of fossilized microbial life. The image was taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera aboard the ESA (European Space Agency) Mars Express orbiter. The European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, operates the ESA mission. The High Resolution Stereo Camera was developed by a group with leadership at the Freie Universitat Berlin.

What is so special about Jezero crater and where is it? Jezero crater is ~30 miles (~49 km) across, was formed by the impact of a large meteorite, and is located in the northern hemisphere of Mars (18.38°N 77.58°E) on the western margin of the ancient and much larger Isidis impact basin. But what makes it special relates to events that happened 3.5 billion years ago when water was more active on the surface of Mars than it is today. Ancient rivers on the western side of Jezero breached the crater rim and drained into the crater, forming a river delta and filling the crater with a lake. From the study of river deltas on the Earth, we know that they typically build outwards into lakes as sediment carried by the associated river enters the lake, slows down, and is deposited. As this process continues, the delta builds out over the top of lake beds and can bury and preserve delicate and subtle signatures of past life. These “biosignatures” are what Perseverance will be looking for when it lands on the floor of the crater and explores the ancient lake beds and nearby delta deposits.

Perseverance will use its instruments to look for signs of ancient life in the delta and lake deposits in Jezero crater and will hopefully allow us to finally answer the question of whether there was ever life on Mars. In addition, Perseverance will begin the process of collecting samples that could one day be returned to Earth. The importance of sample return cannot be overstated. Whether or not evidence of past life is found by Perseverance’s instruments, the legacy enabled by samples the rover collects will be the “scientific gift that keeps on giving”. Once returned to Earth by a future mission, these Mars samples can be subjected to more detailed analysis by a much wider set of instruments than can be carried by Perseverance . Moreover, sample archiving can preserve material for future analysis here on Earth by new and/or more detailed instruments that may not yet exist. So even if Perseverance does not find evidence of past life, it will collect samples that, once returned to Earth, could provide new insight into the evolution of Mars and whether there was ever life on the Red Planet.

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Photo credit: NASA

Mars: Interesting facts, figures and fun questions about the Red Planet

Join us on a journey to the fourth planet from the Sun with amazing facts, incredible images and vital information about Mars.

Alexander McNamara

Toby Saunders

Mars, the Red Planet as it’s otherwise known, has been inspiring astronomers, stargazers, and anyone with a passing interest outside the world of our own for thousands of years. Thanks to near-constantly developing technology, meanwhile, we’re learning more about the rocky planet all the time.

We’re still uncovering the mysteries of our neighbouring planet but there’s a huge amount we know already.

From knowing precisely how far Mars is away from the Earth, what the planet is made out of, to how long it would take to terraform the fourth planet from the Sun , there is plenty to learn here.

Here are the key facts about Mars, interesting stats, and any and all figures you could ever need to get to know the planet inside and out.

How far is Mars from Earth?

At their closest approach, Mars is only 54.6 million kilometres (33.9 million miles) away from the Earth. At their furthest, there are some 400 million km (250 million miles) between them. On average, this means that Mars is around 227.3 million km (roughly 141.24 million miles) away from the Earth.

Due to their elliptical orbits, the distance between Mars and Earth is always changing as they spin around the Sun. The gravitational pull from other planets changes orbit shape, too, with Mars influenced in particular by Jupiter. This, along with the lightly tilted orbits when compared to each other means that the distance between Earth and Mars is always shifting and not all Mars Close Approaches are equal.

Every 26 months, a Mars Close Approach event takes place, when Mars and our home planet come close (relatively speaking) to each other. During these moments, Mars appears particularly bright in the night sky.

The next Mars Close Approach is set to take place on 12 January 2025, when Mars is some 96.1 million km (58.7 million miles) from the Earth. For particularly impressive close approaches with Mars, we typically have to wait 15-17 years. It last reached under 60 million km away in 2003 and won’t get as close again as that until 2287.

How long does it take to get to Mars?

That depends on when you travel and how you plan on getting there. As the distance between Earth and Mars is constantly changing, so too does the amount of time it takes to get there. The quickest journey to the Red Planet by a spacecraft was Mariner 7 's 1969 flyby, which took 128 days to arrive.

How many moons does Mars have?

Mars and Moons

There are two Mars moons; Phobos and Deimos. Phobos is the larger of the two but it is still tiny, with a radius of around 11km. Both moons were named after the Greek gods (and twin sons of the god Mars) of fear and terror respectively. They were discovered in 1877 by American astronomer Asaph Hall.

  • There may still be active volcanoes on Mars
  • Women (probably) make for better astronauts. So should the first crew to Mars be all-female?

How long is a day on Mars?

Mars and Earth have very similar lengths of day. One day on Mars, known as a 'sol', lasts 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35.244 Earth seconds. Approximately 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth.

The lengths of a day on the other planets in the Solar System are roughly as follows:

  • Mercury | 1,408 hours
  • Venus | 5,832 hours
  • Earth | 24 hours
  • Mars | 25 hours
  • Jupiter | 10 hours
  • Saturn | 11 hours
  • Uranus | 17 hours
  • Neptune | 16 hours

Which country went to Mars first?

In 1960, the Soviet Union was the first country to attempt a flyby of Mars with 1M (known in the West as Marsnik) but the mission was unsuccessful. The USA was the first nation to reach Mars successfully when Mariner 4 made a flyby of the Red Planet in July 1965.

What have we found on Mars?

Alas, there have been no reported sightings of little green men (yet), but what has been discovered on Mars' surface is evidence of persistent liquid water , microbe-supporting chemistry , organic molecules , active methane and rocks. Lots of rocks .

What is the gravity on Mars?

As Mars is smaller than Earth, the effect of gravity is much weaker. That's great news if you want to lose weight quickly, because if you weighed 75kg on Earth, that would drop to just over 28kg on Mars. The formula is Weight on Mars = (Weight on Earth/Earth's gravity ( 9.81m/s 2 )) * Mars gravity ( 3.711m/s 2 ) .

What is between Mars and Jupiter?

Asteroids. Many, many asteroids . The majority of the Solar System's known asteroids lie between Mars and Jupiter, with between 1.1 and 1.9 million of them larger than a kilometre in diameter. There are millions more smaller ones, but are so spread out that the distance between them is in the millions of kilometres .

What is the weather like on Mars?

Despite the thin Mars atmosphere, the planet is still capable of clouds and weather. In fact, when it comes to wind, Mars has the biggest dust storms on all of the planets in the Solar System. If you want to know the weather right now, NASA's InSight rover is acting as an on-location weather reporter .

How many robots are on Mars?

Mars is currently home to 23 robots, with more planned in the future. Only three are currently operational, NASA's Curiosity rover, Perseverance rover, and Ingenuity helicopter . The Zhurong rover is currently inactive due to sandstorms but is meant to self-awaken in the near future.

While there are as many as 23 robots on the surface of Mars, many either crash-landed on the surface or broke up on entry. To date, Mars is the only known planet in the Universe to be entirely inhabited by robots .

What is Mars made of?

Below the surface, Mars is made up of a dense iron, nickel and sulphur core, and this is surrounded by a softer silicon and oxygen mantle. The planet's 50km-thick crust consists mainly of iron, magnesium, aluminium, calcium and potassium.

  • Could there be fossils on Mars?
  • Rock samples collected by Perseverance rover hold tantalising clues about water and life on Mars

Where is Mars?

Mars can be found in space, but if you want to be more specific it's the fourth planet from the Sun in our Solar System, which itself is in the Orion-Cygnus Arm of the Milky Way. If you're into astronomical co-ordinates, it currently resides at RA 0h 58m 6s | Dec +2° 10′ 32″ .

Why is Mars red?

Mars landscape

The red colour of Mars comes from the high level of iron oxide in its regolith (surface material). However, why there is so much oxidised iron on a planet with virtually no oxygen in the atmosphere is still a mystery.

How hot is Mars?

Mars is not the sort of place you want to go on a summer holiday. After a months-long journey, you will be welcomed by a maximum temperature of around 20°C on the equator in summer. Down at the poles, Mars can get as cold as -125°C. The average temperature for the Red Planet is -63°C.

How big is Mars compared to Earth?

Earth and Mars size

The diameter of Mars is 6,790km (4,220 miles), making it roughly half the size of Earth and twice as big as the Moon . This makes it the second-smallest planet in the Solar System.

What is the mass of Mars?

Although Earth is twice as big as Mars, it is around ten times heavier! So, we'll let you work out the mass of our home planet knowing that the red one pushes the scales at 6.42 x 10 23 kilograms.

How old is Mars?

Mars is as old as the rest of the Solar System , making it a sprightly 4.6 billion years old. This means that the Red Planet is under half the age of the Milky Way Galaxy (11-13 billion years old) and the Universe (10-15 billion years old).

How long is a year on Mars?

Mars takes 687 Earth days to orbit the Sun, which means it travels at a brisk 24km/s over its 9.55 AU journey (1 AU is about 150 million km, roughly the distance between the Earth and the Sun).

  • How did Mars lose its atmosphere?

Mars was once a warm, wet planet thanks to an atmosphere as thick as Earth's, but those days are long gone. Now it's a dusty old place due to atmospheric erosion, caused by a process known as 'sputtering'. This happens when ions carried by solar wind knock atoms out of the atmosphere and into space.

How long would it take to terraform Mars?

Terraforming means changing a planet's surface and atmosphere to be more like Earth's and therefore a suitable place to live. However, for it to work we need carbon dioxide, and Mars just doesn't have enough going spare. So until we sort that out, the answer is somewhere between a very, very long time to never.

  • Could we terraform Mars?

How far is Mars from the Sun?

Mars has what is known as an eccentric orbit, which means it's not perfectly circular around the Sun. That means the distance between the two is always changing, but at their closest it is 206 million km, while its furthest is 249 million km. This averages out to around 229 million km.

What year was Mars discovered?

Galileo Galilei

Mars is visible in the night sky with the naked eye, so it's impossible to say exactly when anybody first saw it. There are reports of it being sighted by the ancient Egyptians two millennia BCE. However, the first to spot it through a telescope was Galileo Galilei in 1610.

What type of planet is Mars?

Mars is a rocky planet, covered in impact craters, mountains, volcanoes and deep canyons stretching thousands of miles. Olympus Mons is the tallest mountain in the Solar System, stretching 21,229m above the surface of the planet. That towers more than 12km above Mount Everest.

What is Mars named after?

The planet Mars was named after the Roman god of War. He was second only to the king of gods, Jupiter, and was a pretty bloodthirsty chap. That might go some way to explaining why the Red Planet was named after him. The animals most associated with him were the wolf and the woodpecker.

Which country landed on Mars first?

The USSR was the first country to place a human-made object on the planet's surface. The first attempt, Mars 2, crash-landed in November 1971, but less than a week later Mars 3 landed and remained operational for 14.5 seconds.

What colour is the sky on Mars?

Weirdly, the colour of the sky on Mars is the opposite of Earth, being blue towards sunset and sunrise and reddish-pink during the day. This unusual daytime colour is caused by the vast amounts of dust containing Magnetite, an iron ore, suspended in the atmosphere.

  • Mars rover’s MOXIE oxygen generator one step closer to supporting human life on the Red Planet
  • Scientists have measured the core of Mars (and found something unexpected)
  • How we'll grow crops on Mars

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research questions about mars

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research questions about mars

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Mars remains our horizon goal for human exploration because it is one of the only other places we know where life may have existed in the solar system. What we learn about the Red Planet will tell us more about our Earth’s past and future, and may help answer whether life exists beyond our home planet. Like the Moon, Mars is a rich destination for scientific discovery and a driver of technologies that will enable humans to travel and explore far from Earth.

33 million to 249 million miles from Earth (always changing)

Miles(roundtrip)

-284 degrees F to 86 degrees F

Six Technologies to Get Humans to Mars

NASA is advancing many technologies to send astronauts to Mars as early as the 2030s. Here are six things we are working on right now to make future human missions to the Red Planet possible.

Preparing for Mars

Engineers and scientists around the country are working to develop the technologies astronauts will use to one day live and work on Mars and safely return home to Earth.

Quick Facts

Periodic dust storms on Mars can last for months, making nuclear fission power a more reliable option than solar power. 

Periodic dust storms on Mars can last for months, making nuclear fission power a more reliable option than solar power. 

Temperatures on Mars can range from -284 degrees F to 86 degrees F. The atmosphere on Mars is 96% carbon dioxide.

Temperatures on Mars can range from -284 degrees F to 86 degrees F. The atmosphere on Mars is 96% carbon dioxide.

One day on Mars lasts about 37 minutes longer than an Earth day. A year on Mars is almost twice as long as a year on Earth.

One day on Mars lasts about 37 minutes longer than an Earth day. A year on Mars is almost twice as long as a year on Earth.

Gravity on Mars is about one-third of the gravity on Earth. If you weigh 100 pounds on Earth, you would weigh 38 pounds on Mars.

Mars has two moons: Phobos and Deimos. Phobos is 13.8 miles across, and Deimos is 7.8 miles across.

Mars has two moons: Phobos and Deimos. Phobos is 13.8 miles across, and Deimos is 7.8 miles across.

Getting There and Back

When astronauts travel to Mars and back, their vehicle will return home with more than a billion miles on its odometer — more than a thousand times the distance that Artemis I traveled.

Living and Working on Mars

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The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, is helping NASA prepare for human exploration of Mars by demonstrating the technology to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere for burning fuel and breathing.

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Astronauts on a roundtrip mission to Mars will not have the resupply missions to deliver fresh food. NASA is researching food systems to ensure quality, variety, and nutritional values for these long missions. Plant growth on the International Space Station is helping to inform in-space crop management as well.

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NASA is developing life support systems that can regenerate or recycle consumables such as food, air, and water and is testing them on the International Space Station.

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Like we use electricity to charge our devices on Earth, astronauts will need a reliable power supply to explore Mars. The system will need to be lightweight and capable of running regardless of its location or the weather on the Red Planet. NASA is investigating options for power systems, including fission surface power.

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Human missions to Mars may use lasers to stay in touch with Earth. A laser communications system at Mars could send large amounts of real-time information and data, including high-definition images and video feeds.

research questions about mars

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research questions about mars

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research questions about mars

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A carefully selected international fleet of robotic orbiters, landers, and rovers keeps a continuous flow of scientific information and discovery…

research questions about mars

research questions about mars

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MSIP: Question Mars

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The Question Mars lesson is designed to support novice researchers (your students) in developing a Mars research question about their topic of interest. This lesson has been developed to recognize all scientists/researchers begin with a big question in mind. These questions are typically the nebulous “Why” or “How come” questions. However, scientists/researchers have been completing this process for so long, they naturally move to the next step, which is developing multiple possible answers, or hypotheses to this nebulous question. Question Mars works to help students develop these "working hypotheses" and choose the one the students feel is strongest. Once students have a selected a "working hypothesis" they will then be able to write their research question. With a little bit of help from JMARS, students will be equipped with the tools they need and the limitless possibilities available to research on Mars.

research questions about mars

Resources for NGSS Reflections:

NGSS Appendices:

Appendix F – Science and Engineering Practices in NGSS Appendix G – Crosscutting Concepts Appendix H – Understanding the Scientific Enterprise: The Nature of Science in the Next Generation Science Standards

8.5 x 11 Printable Checksheet

11 x 17 Classroom Checksheet Poster:

Mars as seen from earth in Nepal.

Brilliant Mars rises over Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal.

Top 5 Mars mysteries yet to be solved

We know a lot about the red planet after four decades of exploration. But some big questions remain unanswered.

The fourth rock from the sun, Mars has long captured both popular imagination and scientific interest. For decades, robots exploring the red planet have been beaming back pictures of a strange world full of breathtaking beauty.

With mountains three times higher than Everest and canyons five times longer than the Grand Canyon, Mars is an adventure traveller’s paradise. And with its dusty atmosphere, polar caps that change with the seasons, and roughly 24-hour days, Mars is Earthlike enough to beckon human visitors.

As NASA’s next big mission, the InSight lander , prepares to touch down in late November, take a look at some of the biggest mysteries about Mars yet to be solved—including some things we may never know until humans set foot on Martian soil.

Does liquid water flow on Mars today?

The Martian atmosphere today is so cold and thin that liquid water on the surface should either evaporate or freeze into the soil. For over four decades, though, Mars spacecraft have snapped photos of what look like hundreds of dried-up river channels and canyons that may have been carved by fast-flowing water in the distant past.

So where did all the water go? Scientists think these eroded features could be left over from a time when Mars was warmer and wetter, and that some of it may still be locked underground as ice or even deep liquid reservoirs.

Orbiters looking down on Mars have shown large amounts of water ice frozen at the planet’s poles. In 2015, images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed strong evidence that liquid water may flow intermittently on the modern Martian surface. Based on the orbiter’s data, researchers identified the chemical fingerprints of hydrated minerals on many steep crater slopes where mysterious darkish streaks have been previously spotted.

For Hungry Minds

It’s possible that briny Mars water flows on these hills during warm seasons and fades away when it gets cold. But without closer examination, it’s been hard to say for sure whether these recurring features are indeed being made by water or by simple flows of dry dirt .

Meanwhile, Europe’s Mars Express Orbiter used ground-penetrating radar to discover signs of a 12-mile-long lake under the planet’s south polar ice cap. Scientists believe that the underground lake can stay liquid because of its concentrated briny nature. Mars may have many such large water reservoirs scattered across its polar regions, the scientists suggest. Finding them and figuring out how to access their bounty could be critical for potential human explorers visiting Mars in the future.

Why is the northern hemisphere smooth and the southern hemisphere heavily cratered?

In the 1970s, NASA’s Viking missions made the first complete survey of the topography of Mars. Since then, scientists have been puzzling over why the planet has two faces: The northern hemisphere is much flatter and lies lower than the heavily cratered highlands of the southern hemisphere, with a difference in elevation of between three and five miles.

Theories have suggested that internal geological process, like heat convection in the mantle, could have formed Mars’ present-day features. It’s also possible that the planet’s northern half was worn down over time thanks to a vast ocean filling this global basin.

Other studies, however, have come up with a more violent hypothesis for this bizarre dichotomy: Perhaps a large asteroid the size of Earth’s moon smashed into the planet’s south pole 3.9 billion years ago. Such a devastating impact would have been a defining moment on Mars, churning up a magma ocean that gave rise to the red planet’s volcanism, which in turn might have spewed the material that created the southern highlands.

Figuring out this aspect of the red planet’s past could help scientists better understand where future explorers may want to land to find the best resources for establishing a sustained human presence.

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What is generating methane in mars’ atmosphere.

In the last few years, both Earth-based telescopes and Mars orbiters have detected traces of methane on Mars —a gas that could be the result of present-day biological activity or that could signify other geological processes at play.

Recently, findings from NASA’s Curiosity rover suggested that low levels of methane on Mars skyrocket ten-fold over the course of months. This indicates that there is ongoing production of methane, which is perhaps being vented and quickly dispersed around the rover’s Gale Crater landing site. While the same gas in Earth’s atmosphere is mostly the result of biological activity, scientists say that these Martian observations are not necessarily hard-core evidence of microbial life.

Exploring Mars in Pictures

research questions about mars

NASA believes that the source of this methane is north of Curiosity, but it is nearly impossible to define its precise location. The methane source may remain a mystery for the time being, since the rover is not headed in that direction and instead has its sights set on investigating the layered rocks of the crater’s central mountain.

Is there life on Mars?

The main ingredient for life as we know it is liquid water , and signs of its presence on Mars have kept hopes alive of finding past or present signatures of life. But the Martian surface is a harsh place, with wild temperature swings and little protection from harmful ultraviolet radiation.

Many scientists believe that dried-up lake beds like Gale Crater could perhaps harbor fossils or other traces of past organic life near the surface, and NASA’s upcoming mega-mission, known for now as the 2020 Mars rover, will look for these kinds of traces. Meanwhile, extreme life-forms on Earth—including signs of microbes living deep in the planet’s interior —offer hope that something could be alive on Mars today. (However, some experts argue that sending humans to Mars will mess up the hunt for alien life .)

Could humans live on Mars?

The race is on to send humans to Mars , with NASA aiming for a Mars mission perhaps by the mid-2030s, and public and private ventures around the world developing the necessary technology.

But if humans are to survive at all on Mars, they will have to live and work independently of Earth, and carve out a living from the red planet’s natural resources. Habitats will likely need to be built underground, to protect people from dangerous cosmic radiation. Growing food on Mars will also be a challenge, as rovers have shown that the surface soil is sterile and full of toxic compounds called perchlorates.

Ambitious space engineers are even now drawing up plans for the next generations of nuclear, chemical, and solar-powered technologies that will not only be able to advance science on Mars, but may also provide the foundation for self-sufficient human habitats. Building more efficient fuel cells and batteries will be necessary for surviving weeks of darkness during regional or global dust storms . Mining the dirt and rocks under their boots will be critical for making air to breathe, clean drinking water, rocket fuel, and basic building materials.

The only way to solve this mystery is to have that first expedition to Mars set sail. When that happens, there is no question most of us will be glued to our screens, waiting eagerly for humans to establish their next outpost on Mars.

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Editorial article, editorial: advances in mars research and exploration.

www.frontiersin.org

  • 1 School of Geosciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, United Kingdom
  • 2 Institut für Kartographie, Technical University Dresden, Dresden, Germany
  • 3 CNRS, UMR 6112, Laboratoire de Planétologie et Géosciences, Nantes, France

Editorial on the Research Topic Advances in Mars research and exploration

The pursuit of finding habitable conditions or life outside our planet has always been fascinating. In terms of habitability, Mars is the most Earth-like planet within our solar system as it displays comparable physical determinants such as radius, mass, and temperature, and physicochemical markers such as available energy, substrate stability, suitable chemistry, and past liquid stability. In addition, the Martian regolith and subsurface contain water in frozen and possibly in liquid or transient liquid states; Mars has moderate surface gravity to enable future colonization; and the Martian climate, although harsh, can still theoretically support life forms analogous to terrestrial extremophiles. Thus, Mars research and exploration holds a significant place in planetary sciences, advancing our knowledge beyond the Earth.

The interest towards Mars research and exploration has gained significant momentum in the past three decades owing to the advances in computing, hardware, remote sensors, public data availability, and outreach. The next stages of this exploration demand more multidisciplinary efforts to effectively use the vast planetary data being gathered using various missions, platforms, and techniques. With this overview, our Research Topic aimed to bring together research and reviews from the Mars community covering topics on geomorphology, atmosphere, geochemistry, and future exploration. The editorial team consisted of academics from early, mid, and advanced career stages, offering valuable perspectives and feedbacks throughout the editorial process. After thorough review, all the accepted papers in the present Research Topic were novel, comprehensive, and informative with emphasis on the systematic and recent advances in our knowledge, tools, techniques, and methods for Mars research and exploration.

Within Martian geomorphology and geochemistry disciplines, two papers were accepted for publication. The first such paper by Howari et al. investigates certain aspects of recurring slope lineae (RSL), the dark albedo features which are often interpreted as possible transiently flowing water on Martian surface. Using multisensory datasets from High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), Context Camera (CTX), and Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), Howari et al. start with providing an updated global distribution map of RSL sites, and they further go on to perform a geomorphological and compositional analysis of Asimov and Hale craters, two confirmed RSL sites. Howari et al. also investigate the possibility of RSL activity due to deliquescence mediated by favourable temperature and humidity conditions, concluding that the local temperatures in Asimov Crater are high enough to allow deliquescence during the months of RSL activity with a water vapor column nearly five times higher than those measured before RSL appearance. The second paper addressing Martian geomorphology, authored by Chao and Zhibao , investigates the distribution characteristics and patterns of dune landforms. This study also took a multisensory approach, taking key inputs from CTX, Thermal Radiation Imaging System (THEMIS), HiRISE, and MOLA. The results from Chao and Zhibao indicate that the Martian dunefields are spatially distinct, scattered, and mainly concentrated in high-latitude and polar regions. Similar to their terrestrial counterparts, Martian dunes are mainly located in low-lying geomorphic units which favour sand accumulation. Based on these results, Chao and Zhibao conclude the limited sand supply as an important feature of the Martian dune development conditions, and their spatially scattered nature can provide important clues to understanding the Martian aeolian environment and evolutionary history.

The other published papers explored various aspects of the Martian electromagnetic and radiation environment. For example, Gonçalves et al. validate a model which is used to predict the radiation environment expected at different locations on the Martian orbit, atmosphere and surface, as a function of epoch, latitude and longitude. The model is called the detailed Martian Energetic Radiation Environment Model (dMEREM), developed for the European Space Agency, and it takes into account the specific atmospheric and soil composition, based on different particle propagation codes for primary Galactic Cosmic Rays or Solar Particle Events. Gonçalves et al. validate dMEREM with differential proton fluxes measured with the NASA Curiosity rover Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) at the Gale Crater, at the surface of Mars. The authors report a good agreement between the proton fluxes measured at the surface with RAD and the corresponding dMEREM predictions, thus proving the usefulness of dMEREM in the assessment of the expected ionising radiation field on the surface of Mars. The only review article in this Research Topic, authored by Mittelholz and Johnson discusses the Martian crustal magnetic field, discussing its presence, magnitude, and significance from the Martian subsurface to its upper atmosphere. Research on Mars’ crustal magnetic field can offer vital clues about the planet’s interior evolution and surface crustal modification. While available datasets have provided useful information on the acquisition and modification of magnetization in the crust, the authors highlight several research gaps regarding the nature and origin of crustal magnetization, and the past of Martian magnetism. Mittelholz and Johnson also discuss the ways in which all these research questions can be addressed through laboratory analysis, modelling and new datasets.

Finally, two of the published papers aimed at future Mars exploration. The paper by Poian et al. argues in favour of the concept of science autonomy to reduce data redundancy. As a pioneering work in this domain, the authors develop a proof-of-concept for Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA) instrument onboard the planned ExoMars rover, where MOMA will be able to perform selected onboard science data analyses and then act upon those analyses through self-adjustment and tuning of instrument parameters. Poian et al. also discuss the challenges and limitations of this implementation for future missions. Another paper by Abel et al. covers all the more important topic of in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU) for future Mars missions. The authors integrated climate data into a radiative transfer model to show the usefulness of photovoltaics-based power systems as an adequate and practical solution to sustain a crewed mission for an extended period and that too over a large fraction of the Martian surface. Thus, all the published studies in this Research Topic demonstrate the importance of different research and exploration activities aimed at improving our understanding of the Red Planet. Many progresses are expected in relation with the forthcoming exciting Mars missions which are supposed to target the current four goals, prioritised by the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG), pertaining to Martian habitability, climate, geology, and preparation for human exploration.

Author contributions

AB and LS organised this Research Topic with valuable support from MB and AG. AB and LS initiated the first draft of the editorial with subsequent edits and inputs from MB and AG.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

Keywords: Mars, geomorphology, RSL, dunes, radiation modelling, science autonomy, in-situ resource utilisation

Citation: Bhardwaj A, Sam L, Buchroithner MF and Galofre AG (2022) Editorial: Advances in Mars research and exploration. Front. Astron. Space Sci. 9:971104. doi: 10.3389/fspas.2022.971104

Received: 16 June 2022; Accepted: 07 July 2022; Published: 04 August 2022.

Edited and reviewed by:

Copyright © 2022 Bhardwaj, Sam, Buchroithner and Galofre. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Anshuman Bhardwaj, [email protected]

This article is part of the Research Topic

Advances in Mars Research and Exploration

Perseverance rover's Mars rock sample may contain best evidence of possible ancient life

The lead scientist for NASA's Perseverance Mars rover is excited about material that has been stored in the rover's sample tubes.

a close up of multi-colored rock against a background showing a reddish-orange dusty landscape littered with rocks

The lead scientist for NASA's Perseverance Mars rover is excited about material that has been stored in the rover's sample tubes, both dropped on the surface of Mars and contained within the rover itself while wheeling about within Jezero Crater. 

Given the samples of Mars that Perseverance has collected so far, could one of those specimens be what the rover was sent to look for in the first place: evidence of past microbial life on the Red Planet ?

The preliminary finding heightens the need for returning these Mars samples to Earth, so that these prized collectibles from the Red Planet can be sent to laboratories for more rigorous analysis. 

Related: If life exists on Mars, don't count on sample-return missions to find it, scientists say

Lively question

Caltech's Kenneth Farley, project scientist for NASA's Perseverance Mars rover program, briefed the Extraterrestrial Materials Analysis Group (ExMAG) during a meeting held May 13–15 in Houston, Texas.

Tagged "Lefroy Bay," Farley called attention to this sample collected by the Perseverance rover, found to have hydrated silica. Here on Earth , that mineral has the highest potential to preserve signs of ancient life. 

So a lively question wanting of an answer arises: Perhaps Lefroy Bay carries preserved signs of ancient life on Mars ?

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a close-up of a rock sample, showing flecks of minerals in different colors

Paleoenvieonmental conditions

"The Lefroy Bay sample and two other samples from the same unit — the 'Margin Unit' — are onboard Perseverance," Farley told Space.com. "The Margin Unit samples have abundant carbonate and silica, clearly indicating a dominant role for liquid water in their formation," he said.

But whether that water was surface water in a lake or river, or groundwater, remains uncertain, Farley added. Either could constitute an ancient (greater than 3.4 billion years old), habitable Martian environment, he said. 

These samples host phases that on Earth are very useful for establishing "paleoenvieonmental" conditions, Farley noted, and they can also preserve biosignatures. "As such these samples are uniquely important for return to Earth for further study," said Farley.

a satellite view of a reddish-brown landscape

Objective: set in stone

Perseverance is "just about to make a really fundamental transition in the exploration of the environment that we have been working in," Farley explained in his briefing to the ExMAG. "One of the challenges we face," he said, "this is not a great terrain for driving a rover across."

So far, the Mars machinery has traversed some 17 miles (27 kilometers) after it was lowered to the area by skycrane on Feb. 18, 2021. The robot's objective is set in stone: "Seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and regolith for possible Earth return," explains NASA. 

But why was the 28 mile-wide (45-kilometer) Jezero Crater picked as the reconnoitering spot for the rover? 

a reddish-brown landscape of sand and rocks

Scientists believe the area was once flooded with water and was home to an ancient river delta. The anticipation is that Jezero Crater is quite literally, "spilling" the beans about its on-again, off-again nature of the wet past of Mars. More than 3.5 billion years ago, river channels spilled over the crater wall and created a lake. 

What's possible is that microbial life could have lived in Jezero during one or more of those wet periods. If true, evidence of leftovers from those little critters might be discovered in lakebed or shoreline sediments. 

Rover challenges

As for the overall health of the Perseverance rover, Farley noted a couple of issues: For one, loss of wind sensors that are part of the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA), built by an international team led by Spain's Centro de Astrobiología. "We have largely lost the wind sensors. They are essentially not functioning anymore," he reported.

Also, the spectroscopy parts of the robotic arm-mounted Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals, SHERLOC for short, are challenged. That's due to a lens cover no longer working properly. However, there's some preliminary work done suggesting scientists may be able to recover SHERLOC's spectroscopy abilities. "We'll know more about that in the coming months," Farley said.

Three Forks depot

The rover was dispatched to Mars with 38 tubes that could be used for rock, regolith, and even atmospheric sampling. "We're about two-thirds of the way through the sample collection," explained Farley. 

The on-duty robot has sampled igneous rocks, mudstone, sandstone/pebble conglomerate, carbonate-silica-olivine, as well as top side Mars sand and snagged a whiff of Martian atmosphere .

Earlier in its trekking of Mars, Perseverance dropped 10 sealed sample tubes at a depot location dubbed "Three Forks" in Jezero Crater. The intent is that a Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission in the future would pick up sample tubes for rocketing those bits and pieces of Mars to Earth. 

However, that joint NASA and European Space Agency undertaking is now going through a detailed re-look due to a projected $11 billion price tag and an anticipated, but not satisfactory, time period to pull off such a complicated endeavor.

silver metal tubes lying on reddish-orange dust and rocks

Stay the course

Farley told the ExMAG group that rover operators are working to qualify Perseverance to 55 miles (90 kilometers) of traverse, allowing it to make its way to enlivening landscape.

—  Handle Mars with care: Guidelines needed for responsible Red Planet exploration, experts say

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"There is obviously an enormous amount of uncertainty with what the MSR is going to be. We are waiting to hear how we are going to play a role in that on the Perseverance mission," Farley said. "But for now, we're going to stay the course. We are going to continue to behave essentially as we have so far, with a strong focus on sample collection."

Now in the rover's travel itinerary is completing tasks at an area called Bright Angel, then move up onto the crater rim, where the rover can survey fundamentally different geology, added Farley.

In ascending the rim, "we will expeditiously complete the sampling. The sooner we get the sampling done the sooner we can all rest easy … that we have done our job," said Farley. 

What happens next for Perseverance is in TBD status. 

"Maybe we will return to the crater floor to rendezvous with MSR, maybe we won't. It will depend on what actually happens with MSR," Farley concluded.

Editor's note: The original version of this story contained this sentence: "In reviewing the samples of Mars that Perseverance has collected, scientists say one tube appears to be packed with what the rover was looking for: evidence of past microbial life on the Red Planet." That is too strong a statement, however; the story was edited at 7:15 p.m. ET on May 20 to replace the above with the following: "Given the samples of Mars that Perseverance has collected so far, could one of those specimens be what the rover was sent to look for in the first place: evidence of past microbial life on the Red Planet?"

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: [email protected].

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.

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research questions about mars

Scientists Are Very Worried About NASA’s Mars Plan

We could find hints of ancient life in Martian rocks—if we can ever bring them back to Earth.

An illustration of the red planet Mars with the "pause button" symbol on its face

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Produced by ElevenLabs and News Over Audio (NOA) using AI narration.

Updated at 10:40 a.m. ET on May 22, 2024

In the Martian lowlands, one rocky crater is dotted with small holes, winding from the floor to the rim like breadcrumbs. Their clean and cylindrical appearance is distinctly unnatural, suggesting the work of aliens—which it is. For three years, a robot from Earth has been collecting samples of rock and soil into six-inch-long tubes, whirring and crackling on the otherwise quiet planet. The robot, a rover named Perseverance, has deposited some of the samples on the Martian surface in sealed tubes. The others, about two dozen so far, remain stored inside the rover’s belly.

Perseverance will stay on Mars forever, but the majority of its carefully packaged samples are meant to return to Earth. The Mars Sample Return mission, known as MSR for short, is one of the boldest undertakings in NASA history, as consequential as it is complicated. The endeavor, which involves sending an extra spacecraft to the red planet to retrieve the samples, serves as a precursor to getting future astronauts home from Mars. It’s a test of whether the United States can keep up with China’s space program, which is scheduled to return its own Mars samples in the 2030s. It could uncover new information about our planetary neighbor’s history, and reveal a picture of the cosmic wilderness that was the early solar system. Some scientists hope the dusty fragments will contain tiny fossilized microbes that would prove life once existed on Mars. Those tiny life forms will have been dead for who knows how long—but still would be evidence of a second genesis in our own backyard.

If, that is, the samples ever make it back to Earth. NASA officials recently announced that the sample-return effort has become too expensive and fallen worryingly behind schedule. The latest estimated cost of as much as $11 billion is nearly double what experts initially predicted, and the way things are going, the samples won’t arrive home until 2040, seven years later than expected. At a press conference last month, NASA chief Bill Nelson repeatedly called the state of the Mars Sample Return mission “unacceptable,” a striking chastisement of his own agency, considering that MSR is an in-house effort. Officials have put out a call—to NASA’s own ranks and to private space companies—for “quicker and cheaper” plans that don’t require “huge technological leaps” to bring the samples home.

Read: Scientists really, really want a piece of Mars

NASA officials say that they remain committed to the return effort, but researchers—including the agency’s collaborators who work on the project—are concerned. “The path forward is not clear,” Aileen Yingst, a geologist at the Planetary Science Institute who works on the Perseverance mission, told me. Scientists who study Mars are worried that the mission will be downsized. Scientists who don’t study Mars—and a few who do—are frustrated, because MSR consumes so much of NASA’s budget. Scientists can’t imagine NASA giving up on the mission entirely, but the debacle has even prompted some whispered jokes about China coming along and claiming the tubes on the surface before NASA can fly them home. Last year, an independent review ordered by NASA ominously warned that “by abandoning return of Mars samples to other nations, the U.S. abandons the preeminent role that [President John F. Kennedy] ascribed to the scientific exploration of space.”

If and when the MSR tubes come home, their contents could dramatically shift our understanding of Mars. The first NASA spacecraft to land on Mars, in 1976, carried instruments designed to examine Martian soil for evidence of tiny, metabolizing life forms but didn’t find anything conclusive. Some bits of Martian rock, ejected by colliding asteroids, have made it to Earth as meteorites. (And scientists have tried to find proof of life in these, too). But such fragments arrive scorched by atmospheric reentry, their composition altered and contaminated from the journey. Pristine samples are far more tantalizing.

MSR would deliver Martian dirt straight from an area that scientists believe holds a promising chance at containing signs of life from 3.5 billion years ago. The Perseverance rover is exploring the shores of what scientists believe was once a lake, at a crater called Jezero, where the sedimentary rock may bear signs of a once-habitable world, or preserved life itself. The samples might also offer hints about Earth’s origin story. The rocks that existed here 4 billion years ago, when the solar system was just getting started, have since been crushed, melted, and eroded away. But Mars, a world lacking plate tectonics and serious weather, still bears rocks from the time of its very formation.

Read: The most overhyped planet in the galaxy

The promise of such samples has been a top research priority for planetary scientists for over a decade. The original plan to do so, devised by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), is accordingly ambitious, involving several different spacecraft to retrieve the capsules, launch them into Martian orbit, and fly them back to Earth. No astronauts are involved, but Mars scientists have likened the mission choreography to the Apollo program in terms of complexity.

That plan was apparently destined to unravel from the start. NASA’s independent review found that MSR had “unrealistic budget and schedule expectations from the beginning" and was "organized under an unwieldy structure," with "unclear roles, accountability, and authority.” Technically ambitious missions always cost more, and MSR is arguably one of the most complicated that NASA has ever undertaken. But the scientists who help NASA set exploration priorities have no control over the budgets of the resulting programs—Congress does.

Last summer, some congressional appropriators briefly threatened the entire MSR effort with cancellation. This February, facing uncertainty over the money that Congress would allocate for MSR in the next fiscal year, the JPL laid off more than 500 employees. (Congress has since allocated a fraction of what NASA spent on the mission last year.) Thanks to budget concerns, NASA has delayed the launch of a telescope that would monitor potentially hazardous asteroids near Earth, and put on hold a proposed mission to study Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field.

Some scientists fear that MSR will draw resources away from other potential projects to search for life in places that they now believe to be far more promising than Mars. The search for alien life in the solar system has long been guided by water, and in the 1990s, when NASA kicked off a golden age of Mars missions, the red planet’s ice regions seemed appealing. But in the years since, other celestial bodies have become more compelling. A moon of Saturn, Titan, is the only body in the solar system besides Earth that has bodies of liquid on its surface, even if that liquid is methane. Europa, a moon of Jupiter, and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, are both likely icy worlds with subsurface oceans; on the latter, cracks in the ice release plumes of salty water, hinting at something like deep-sea hydrothermal activity on Earth. NASA is launching an orbiting mission to Europa later this year, and the latest survey of planetary scientists advised NASA to start working on another to Enceladus. “If I could go anywhere, I would go to Enceladus,” Brook Nunn, an astrobiologist at the University of Washington, told me.

Read: Mars’s soundscape is strangely beautiful

Even some Mars scientists believe that Mars is no longer the top candidate. Darby Dyar, a planetary geologist at Mount Holyoke College, has spent decades studying Mars. “If anybody should be enthusiastic about the returned samples, it’s me, and I am,” she told me. But now she works on a NASA mission to Venus, a planet that might rival Mars as a candidate for extraterrestrial life, and she says she wouldn’t prioritize MSR over her current research.

For scientists who support Mars exploration, MSR is a problem, siphoning funds away from other efforts to study it. “There’s so many aspects to studying a planet that do not involve analyzing small amounts of rocks in the lab,” says Catherine Neish, a planetary scientist at Western University, in Canada, who’s working on an international mission to map the ice deposits in Mars’s mid-latitude regions. NASA pulled its financial support from that project in 2022, citing MSR’s cost as part of its motivation. And planetary scientists have recommended prioritizing a mission to drill deep into the ice at the Martian poles, far from Perseverance’s domain, where conditions could be just comfortable enough to support small life forms now.

NASA is well aware of the all-consuming nature of MSR. As the mission is redrawn, officials have said they are even willing to consider proposals that would bring home just 10 sample tubes, one-third of the amount initially planned. Lindsay Hays, a program scientist at NASA’s planetary-science division, told me that NASA will seek input from the science community about which sample tubes to return. “NASA has a responsibility to use taxpayer funds in the most effective and efficient way possible,” she said. “But it’s also part of our mandate to the nation to do things that have never been done before.”

Read: Too much of a good thing at NASA

Most planetary scientists aren’t happy with a potentially scaled-back approach either. “You’ve decimated the science, because now you’re not going to get the diversity that you could have if we brought back the full suite of samples,” Phil Christensen, a geologist at Arizona State University who co-chaired the community’s latest decadal survey, told me.

A badly delayed sample-return mission would fracture NASA’s grand vision for its Martian future. By the 2040s, NASA intends to be focused not on the red planet’s soil, but on sending astronauts there and, crucially, bringing them back. That operation relies on having successfully practiced launching off from Mars, which NASA hasn’t yet managed with MSR. Instead, the agency is back at the drawing board, hoping to find a way out of an $11 billion pit. Officials expect to finish reviewing new proposals and come to a decision on the mission’s future in the fall. Meanwhile, Perseverance chugs along, excavating the mythical oasis of Jezero Crater with each curated tube.

This article originally misstated which planet Enceladus orbits. It also misstated the target region of a Mars ice-mapping region.

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May 31, 2024

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Space station research advances NASA's plans to explore the moon, Mars

by Melissa L. Gaskill, NASA

Space station research advances NASA's plans to explore the moon, Mars

Space, the saying goes, is hard. And the farther humans go, the harder it can get.

Some of the challenges on missions to explore the moon and Mars include preventing microbial contamination of these destinations, navigating there safely, protecting crew members and hardware from radiation, and maintaining and repairing equipment.

Research on the International Space Station is helping NASA scientists develop tools and processes to ensure success on these important missions. Here are highlights from some of the investigations making space a little easier.

Tracking tiny stowaways

Bacteria and fungi live in and on all humans and all around us on Earth. Most of these microorganisms are beneficial or harmless but introducing them to other celestial bodies could adversely affect our ability to study ecosystems on those other worlds.

Crew members will conduct a spacewalk to collect samples near space station life support system vents for ISS External Microorganisms, an investigation to assess whether the orbiting laboratory releases microorganisms into space. Results could provide insight into the potential for organisms to survive and reproduce in space and help researchers determine which microbes would most likely contaminate other planetary bodies visited by crewed missions.

A miniature, hand-held digital microscope designed to make in-flight medical diagnoses, the Moon Microscope, also can test water, food, and surfaces for contamination. The device images samples at high resolution and processes data on web-enabled devices such as phones or tablets. Multiple users can access the microscope simultaneously, and some applications run autonomously.

Space station research advances NASA's plans to explore the moon, Mars

Getting there and back

Spacecraft must have sophisticated high-tech systems for navigating. Sextant Navigation tests the function of sextants in microgravity as an emergency backup navigation technique for Artemis and other future exploration missions. These mechanical devices have guided navigators for centuries, and Gemini and Apollo missions demonstrated they were useful for astronauts.

Refining radiation detection

Missions beyond low Earth orbit increase exposure to radiation, which can pose a hazard to human health and interfere with equipment operation. As NASA prepares for future missions, providing adequate protection is vital.

The Hybrid Electronic Radiation Assessor, or HERA, was built to serve as a primary radiation detection system for the Orion spacecraft, which will carry crews into orbit around the moon. The International Space Station Hybrid Electronic Radiation Assessor investigation modified the system to operate on the space station to provide researchers input for use on future exploration missions.

Space station research advances NASA's plans to explore the moon, Mars

Artemis HERA on Space Station further modified the radiation detection system so researchers could continue to evaluate the hardware in the space radiation environment prior to Artemis II.

Active-Dosimeters, an investigation led by ESA (European Space Agency), tested a wearable system to measure radiation exposure to crew members on the space station and how it changes with the station's orbit and altitude. Data from the wearable dosimeter improved radiation risk assessments and could lead to better protection for astronauts, including the ability to quickly respond to changes in exposure throughout future exploration missions.

Robot helpers

On future exploration missions, robotic technology can help crew members with basic tasks, monitor and maintain equipment, and conduct operations such as sample collection, reducing the need to expose astronauts to harsh environments.

Space station research advances NASA's plans to explore the moon, Mars

Integrated System for Autonomous and Adaptive Caretaking demonstrates using autonomous robots to transfer and unpack cargo and to track and respond to maintenance issues such as leaks and fires, which could protect valuable equipment and reduce costly repairs on future missions. The investigation uses the space station's Astrobee and Robonaut robots.

Multi-Resolution Scanning uses the station's Astrobees to test sensors and robotics to support automated 3D sensing, mapping, and situational awareness functions. On future Gateway and lunar surface missions, such systems could automatically detect defects and conduct remote maintenance and autonomous operation of vehicles such as rovers.

Surface Avatar evaluates crew operation of multiple autonomous robots in space. The investigation also assesses crew member responsiveness to feedback on the consoles used to operate robots remotely, which supports design of effective setups for operating robots on the ground from a spacecraft orbiting above. Results contribute to the development of other uses of robotic assistance such as returning samples from Mars and asteroids.

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IMAGES

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