In Pictures: What is so infinitely cool about Mars?

Interest in exploring the Red Planet is at an all-time high -- from millionaire private space-goers to world-wide space programs and scientists

  • With news this week that millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito wants to fund a two-person trip to Mars, the Red Planet continues to draw a spectacular amount of interest from the public and just about anyone else who has set their sights on the Red Planet. In the past three months hot Mars news has included the promise of a new Mars missions from India and NASA; predictions of a comet that may smash the planet in 2014 and plenty of new discoveries. Take a look.

  • The big news this week was the millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito [Tito in 2001 paid his way on a Souyez mission to the International Space Station] said he wanted to fund a 501-day Mars mission beginning in 2018. His Inspiration Mars Foundation mission would pass within 100 miles of Mars before returning to Earth. While the actual components of the spacecraft have not been set yet, the group expects to use what it called “proven low-Earth orbit (LEO) space transportation systems and technologies derived from industry, NASA and the International Space Station.” One likely possibility is to use SpaceX Falcon Heavy rockets.

  • As part of the Mars Inspiration announcement, the foundation released a white paper that goes into great detail about the feasibility of such a mission. From the paper: A manned Mars free-return mission is a useful precursor mission to other planned Mars missions. It will develop and demonstrate many critical technologies and capabilities needed for manned Mars orbit and landing missions. Investments in pursuing this development now would not be wasted even if this mission were to miss its launch date. Working on this mission will also be a means to train the skilled workforce needed for the future manned Mars missions.

  • India recently said it would launch its first mission to Mars this year. India will send a satellite in October via an unmanned spacecraft to orbit the red planet, blasting off from the southeastern coast in a mission expected to cost about $83 million. In this photo India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C-20 blasts off, carrying seven satellites - the Indo-French satellite SARAL, world's first smart phone-operated nano satellite, a space telescope satellite and four other foreign satellites.

  • In December NASA said it wanted to build on the great success and popularity of its current Mars Science Laboratory mission, and announced plans to explore the red planet further, including launching another sophisticated robot rover by 2020 and widely expanding other Mars scientific projects. The plan to design and build a new Mars robotic science rover -- which will mirror the technology employed with the current Curiosity rover and further the research needed to send humans to the planet sometime around 2030, NASA said.

  • Here we see NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft which is slated to launch this November. MAVEN will be the first mission devoted to understanding the Martian upper atmosphere, according to NASA.

  • NASA’s Curiosity rover has been busy. Here the rover shot the Mars moon Phobos grazing the sun. Curiosity outfitted its high-resolution camera with protective filters and took pictures of the sun as Phobos, one of Mars' two small moons, sailed by. It was a tricky shoot. Phobos and its sister moon Deimos are closer to Mars than our moon is to Earth, so they shot across the sky relatively quickly. Phobos takes less than eight hours to circle Mars, NASA said.

  • Big recent news from Mars came from NASA and its Curiosity which showed the first ever sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover's drill. The image was taken after the sample was transferred from the drill to the rover's scoop. In planned subsequent steps, the sample will be sieved, and portions of it delivered to the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument.

  • This image from the Curiosity rover shows rough spherical features on the surface of the planet in an area called 'Yellowknife Bay.' These features are interpreted as concretions, implying they formed in water that percolated through pores in the sediment. Spherical concretions have previously been discovered in other rocks on Mars, NASA said.

  • An outcrop at the "Sheepbed" locality taken by NASA's Curiosity shows well-defined veins filled with whitish minerals, interpreted as calcium sulfate.

  • This full-circle scene combines 817 images taken by the panoramic camera on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. It shows the terrain that surrounded the rover while it was stationary for four months of work during its most recent Martian winter.

  • This shiny-looking rock generated a lot of interest from scientists. Shot by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, NASA said some casual observers might see a resemblance to a car door handle, hood ornament or some other type of metallic object. To Ronald Sletten of the University of Washington, Seattle, a collaborator on Curiosity's science team, the object is an interesting study in how wind and the natural elements cause erosion and other effects on various types of rocks.

  • The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter which is flying around the Red Planet snapped this series of false-color pictures of sand dunes in the north polar region of Mars. The area covered in each of the five panels is about 0.8 mile (1.3 kilometers) wide.

  • Operating in its 10th year, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity still takes some awesome pictures.

  • NASA-funded researchers analyzing a small meteorite that may be the first discovered from the Martian surface or crust have found it contains 10 times more water than other Martian meteorites from unknown origins. This new class of meteorite was found in 2011 in the Sahara Desert. Designated Northwest Africa (NWA) 7034, and nicknamed "Black Beauty," it weighs approximately 11 ounces (320 grams). After more than a year of intensive study, a team of U.S. scientists determined the meteorite formed 2.1 billion years ago during the beginning of the most recent geologic period on Mars, known as the Amazonian.

  • This image from Curiosity shows details of rock texture and color in an area where the rover's Dust Removal Tool (DRT) brushed away dust that was on the rock. Fractures, white veins, pits and tiny dark grains in the rock are visible, as well as remaining clumps and specks of dust. The scale bar at lower left is 2 millimeters (0.08 inches). - See more at:

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