The Opportunity rover has apparently found something on Mars that's got scientist buzzing back on Earth.
NASA plans to announce Tuesday "significant findings" involving the six-wheeled rover that has been searching the dusty martian landscape since January for any history of water.
"The primary mission of the rovers really dealt with the history of water on Mars and we'll be reporting new findings that bear on that," NASA spokesman Don Savage said Monday from Washington, D.C. "I can't go into any detail without telling you what it was."
Since NASA launched the twin robot geologists last summer, scientists hoped the rovers would find minerals that could reveal whether the planet ever was wet enough to support life, inform &to=http://www.kansascity.com' target=_blank>KansasCity
How do you get giant amounts of data from a spacecraft sitting on the surface of Mars? For NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the indirect way is the best way - using relay satellites that orbit Mars. Each rover has a high-gain microwave antenna that can transmit scientific data directly to Earth, but more often than not uses a low-gain UHF antenna to transmit the data to either Mars Odyssey or Mars Global Surveyor, spacecraft in orbit above Mars.
"This transfer of data is much more efficient because the orbiters have much bigger solar arrays and bigger antennas, so they're not so much energy- and bandwidth-constrained as the rovers are," Jet Propulsion Laboratory telecom engineer Andrea Barbieri said. Think of it as a low-power cell phone talking to a nearby transmitter tower, which has far more power. Using spacecraft in orbit, the relays can transmit data 10 times faster than the direct link.
Each spacecraft to Mars builds on previous missions and provides information that helps future missions. Every Mars orbiter has a Mars Relay UHF radio that can communicate with probes on the Martian surface. That can include base stations, rovers or even balloons or airplanes flying above the surface, according to &to=http://www.wired.com' target=_blank>Wired.com
NASA believes that if life ever existed on the planet, it would have formed in the presence of water. "There has been little news from the science teams lately, which has frustrated those of us waiting for results," said Darby Dyar, an associate professor of geology and astronomy at Mount Holyoke College who is providing background data to help NASA analyze results from Mars. "So we'll all be tuned in."
Past missions to the Red Planet have found tantalizing clues for liquid water: Evidence of icecaps has been spotted by orbiters at its poles, and a delta and channels spotted by orbiters appear to have been formed by water.
NASA scientists have turned their attention to minerals, focusing on gray hematite in the area where Opportunity landed because the mineral has been known to form on earth in the presence of water. However, the mineral can also form without water.
In recent days, Opportunity has been studying a piece of rock outcropping called El Capitan, but little about its composition has been released. NASA scientists have turned their attention to minerals, focusing on gray hematite in the area where Opportunity landed because the mineral has been known to form on earth in the presence of water. However, the mineral can also form without water.