News from Mars: ExoLance Project to Hunt for Life

exolance-2The search for life on Mars has been ongoing, and predates the deployment of the Curiosity rover by many years. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that if signs of life are to be truly found, they won’t turn up by scratching around on the surface. Beyond Curiosity’s own slated inspection of Mount Sharp (where it just arrived!) NASA has some long-range plans that reach deeper.

Outside of NASA’s InSight Lander, which is set to launch in the spring of 2016, there’s Explore Mars’ plan to look for signs of life beneath the surface. A private organization made up technologists and former NASA engineers, their plan is to drop supersonic lances onto the planet that will penetrate deep into the Martian soil to seek out protected, potentially wet strata where life might still exist.

exolanceKnown as ExoLance, the project is designed to take up where the Viking missions of the late 1970s left off. In these first successful Mars landers, there was an experiment on board that looked for signs of life in the Martian soil. This consisted of the Viking lander scooping up soil, depositing it inside the automatic laboratory in the lander, squirted a nutrient solution into the sample, and analyzing the gases given off that might indicate the presence of life.

The Viking experiment did give off gases that seemed like they were due to living organisms, but it later discovered that these were due to chemical reactions due to the extremely dry conditions and constant bombardment of UV radiation. Because of this, NASA has preferred to focus more on geology to gain a better understanding of the Martian environment rather than looking for life directly.

exolance-3But Explore Mars wants to go back to the direct approach by combining an experiment similar to the Viking lab with a delivery system based on the US Air Force’s bunker-buster weapons. They also hope to incorporate technology developed for the Curiosity rover, which includes reusing the aeroshell that protected the Curiosity rover as it made its descent to the Martian surface in 2012.

When the shell reaches Mars, it will open up to reveal a delivery vehicle similar to the Skycrane that delivered Curiosity to the surface by hovering under rocket power while it winched the lander down. In the case of the ExoLance, the vehicle – which is appropriately called a Quiver – will hover in place. But instead of lowering a rover, it will fire multiple penetrator probes at the ground.

exolance-1These perpetrators, called Arrows, are small, lightweight versions of the bunker-buster bombs that were developed by the US forces during the 1991 Gulf War. However, instead of exploding, the Arrows will strike the surface at supersonic speeds to bore deep into the ground and (similar to NASA’s Deep Space 2 probe) split in two to deploy a cache of scientific equipment packed into the nose.

While the tail section remains on the surface to act as a transmitter back to Earth, the nose bores about 5 m (16 ft) into the surface to find protected layers that may contain water, but which are shielded against the deadly surface radiation. Once in position, the Arrow activates its experiment, which is designed to not only detect signs of living organisms, but also to determine if the life signs are those of microbes similar to those found on Earth, or have a completely different origin.

exolance-4The mission is the subject of an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign aimed at raising US$250,000. The group says that within a year of raising its Indiegogo funding, it would develop and build Arrow prototypes and test them in the Mojave Desert by dropping them from aircraft. The idea is not only to see if the experiments can survive the impact, but also to make sure that the penetrators don’t dig in too deep or too shallow.

In addition, the group expects the design to change as they deals with problems, such as the volume of the cylinder, batteries, deploying the tether linking the two segments, and making sure the components can withstand the impact. In the second year, the group plans to enact Phase II, which would concentrate on developing the microbial experiments. If this is successful, they plan to approach NASA or commercial companies to arrange delivering ExoLance to Mars.

The crowdfunding campaign will run until September 29th, and has raised a total of $15,680 of their projected goal. To check out this campaign, or to contribute, click here. And be sure to check out Explore Mars’ promotional video below:


Source:
gizmag.com, exploremars.org, indiegogo.com

The Future is Here: Brain Scanning for Pets!

Up_Doug_talkingdogRemember that scene in the Disney Pixar’s Up, where the old man and the little boy discover a dog who, thanks to a special collar, is able to talk to them? As it stands, that movie may have proven to be more prophetic than anyone would have thought. Thanks to improvements in wearable tech and affordable EEG monitors, it may finally be possible to read your dog’s mind and translate it into speech.

This is not the first case of commercial technology being used to monitor an animal’s habits. In recent years, wearable devices have been made available that an track the exercise, sleeping and eating patterns of a dog. But now, thanks to EEG devices like the “No More Woof”, it might be possible to track their thoughts, learning exactly what they think of that new couch, their new dry food, or the neighbors cat.

Woof_no_more1Tomas Mazzetti, the devices inventor, came up with the idea after he got as to what would happen if he strapped an off-the-shelf EEG machine to his mother’s Australian terrier. The observations that followed inspired the launch of a new project for Mazzetti and his team of fellow creatives at the Nordic Society for Invention and Discovery.

This society – which represents a collaboration between the ad agency Studio Total and Swedish retailer MiCasa – has spawned a number of quirky products in the past. These include a rocking chair that charges your iPad, a weather forecasting lamp, and a levitating carpet for small-ish pets. No More Woof is the society’s latest work, and the team recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise more funding for research.

Woof_no_moreSo far, Mazzetti and his team have been able to determine three baseline dog emotions to translate into speech: sleepiness, agitation, and curiosity. In time, they hope to be able to decipher hunger pangs as processed by a dog’s brain, and come up with appropriate verbalizations for all:

When the dog is sleepy, we translate to ‘I’m tired.’ And if they are really agitated, we can translate to ‘I’m excited!’ And the most active brainwave is when the dog sees a human face and tries to recognize that face. Then the brain is working overtime.

Mazzetti and the NSID are also working on finding cheaper EEG machines, after which they can fine-tune the software. They’ve done tests on roughly 20 dogs, of which they found that short-haired pets were able to communicate with the EEG machine better. If NSID receives more funding, its researchers hope to have something for sale by March or April of next year.

Brainwave-Frequency-ChartBut while Mazzetti’s primary goal is to produce something commercially viable for use with dogs, he’s also hopeful that other research institutions or retailers will pick up where NSID leaves off. For example, what thoughts could be translated if someone were to put a more sophisticated version of No More Woof on the head of a primate, or another highly intelligent mammal?

Looking even further afield, Mazzetti has suggested that such a device could work both ways, translating human speech into concepts that a dog (or other animal) could understand. As we all know, dogs are very good at learning verbal commands, but again, the idea of two-way communication offers possibilities to convey complex messages with other, more highly-intelligent animals.

humpbackCould it be possible someday to communicate with simians without the need for sign language, to commune openly with dolphins and Orcas, or warn Humpbacks about the impending dangers of whalers and deep sea fishers? Perhaps, and it would certainly be to the benefit of all. Not only would we be able to get our mammalian brethren to better understand us, we might just learn something ourselves!

After all, the line that separates humanity from all other species is a rather fine one, and tends to blur to closer we inspect it. By being able to commune with other species in a way that can circumvent “language barriers”, we might just learn that we have more in common than we think, and aren’t such a big, screaming deal after all.

And in the meantime, enjoy this video of the No More Woof in action:


And be sure to check out this clip from Up where Doug (the talking dog) is introduced, with hilarious results!