Biggest Scientific Breakthroughs of 2013

center_universe2The new year is literally right around the corner, folks. And I thought what better way to celebrate 2013 than by acknowledging its many scientific breakthroughs. And there were so many to be had – ranging in fields from bioresearch and medicine, space and extra-terrestrial exploration, computing and robotics, and biology and anthropology – that I couldn’t possibly do them all justice.

Luckily, I have found a lovely, condensed list which managed to capture what are arguably the biggest hits of the year. Many of these were ones I managed to write about as they were happening, and many were not. But that’s what’s good about retrospectives, they make us take account of things we missed and what we might like to catch up on. And of course, I threw in a few stories that weren’t included, but which I felt belonged.

So without further ado, here are the top 12 biggest breakthroughs of 2013:

1. Voyager 1 Leaves the Solar System:

For 36 years, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has travelling father and farther away from Earth, often at speeds approaching 18 km (11 miles) per second. At a pace like that, scientists knew Voyager would sooner or later breach the fringe of the heliosphere that surrounds and defines our solar neighborhood and enter the bosom of our Milky Way Galaxy. But when it would finally break that threshold was a question no one could answer. And after months of uncertainty, NASA finally announced in September that the space probe had done it. As Don Gurnett, lead author of the paper announcing Voyager’s departure put it: “Voyager 1 is the first human-made object to make it into interstellar space… we’re actually out there.”

voyager12. The Milky Way is Filled with Habitable Exoplanets:

After years of planet hunting, scientists were able to determine from all the data gathered by the Kepler space probe that there could be as many as 2 billion potentially habitable exoplanets in our galaxy. This is the equivalent of roughly 22% of the Milky Way Galaxy, with the nearest being just 12 light years away (Tau Ceti). The astronomers’ results, which were published in October of 2013, showed that roughly one in five sunlike stars harbor Earth-size planets orbiting in their habitable zones, much higher than previously thought.

exoplanets23. First Brain to Brain Interface:

In February of 2013, scientists announced that they had successfully established an electronic link between the brains of two rats. Even when the animals were separated by thousands of kms distance, signals from the mind of one could help the second solve basic puzzles in real time. By July, a connection was made between the minds of a human and a rat. And by August, two researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis were able to demonstrate that signals could be transmitted between two human brains, effectively making brain-to-brain interfacing (BBI), and not just brain computer interfacing (BCI) truly possible.

brain-to-brain-interfacing4. Long-Lost Continent Discovered:

In February of this year, geologists from the University of Oslo reported that a small precambrian continent known as Mauritia had been found. At one time, this continent resided between Madagascar and India, but was then pushed beneath the ocean by a multi-million-year breakup spurred by tectonic rifts and a yawning sea-floor. But now, volcanic activity has driven the remnants of the long-lost continent right through to the Earth’s surface.

Not only is this an incredibly rare find, the arrival of this continent to the surface has given geologists a chance to study lava sands and minerals which are millions and even billions of years old. In addition to the volcanic lava sands, the majority of which are around 9 million years old, the Oslo team also found deposits of zircon xenocryst that were anywhere from 660 million to 1.97 billion years old. Studies of these and the land mass will help us learn more about Earth’s deep past.

mauritia5. Cure for HIV Found!:

For decades, medical researchers and scientists have been looking to create a vaccine that could prevent one from being infected with HIV. But in 2013, they not developed several vaccines that demonstrated this ability, but went a step further and found several potential cures. The first bit of news came in March, when researchers at Caltech demonstrated using HIV antibodies and an approach known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP) that it was possible to block the virus.

Then came the SAV001 vaccine from the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University in London, Ontario, which aced clinical trials. This was punctuated by researchers at the University of Illinois’, who in May used the “Blue Waters” supercomputer to developed a new series of computer models to get at the heart of the virus.

HIV-budding-ColorBut even more impressive was the range of potential cures that were developed. The first came in March, where researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis that a solution of bee venom and nanoparticles was capable of killing off the virus, but leaving surrounding tissue unharmed. The second came in the same month, when doctors from Johns Hopkins University Medical School were able to cure a child of HIV thanks to the very early use of antiretroviral therapy (ART).

And in September, two major developments occurred. The first came from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, where researchers showed that an antiviral foot cream called Ciclopirox was capable of eradicating infectious HIV when applied to cell cultures of the virus. The second came from the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), where researchers developed a vaccine that was also able to cure HIV in about 50% of test subjects. Taken together, these developments may signal the beginning of the end of the HIV pandemic.

hiv-aids-vaccine6. Newly Discovered Skulls Alter Thoughts on Human Evolution:

The discovery of an incredibly well-preserved skull from Dmanisi, Georgia has made anthropologists rethink human evolution. This 1.8 million-year old skull has basically suggested that our evolutionary tree may have fewer branches than previously thought. Compared with other skulls discovered nearby, it suggests that the earliest known members of the Homo genus (H. habilis, H.rudolfensis and H. erectus) may not have been distinct, coexisting species, but instead were part of a single, evolving lineage that eventually gave rise to modern humans.

humanEvolution7. Curiosity Confirms Signs of Life on Mars:

Over the past two years, the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers have provided a seemingly endless stream of scientific revelations. But in March of 2013, NASA scientists released perhaps the most compelling evidence to date that the Red Planet was once capable of harboring life. This consisted of drilling samples out of the sedimentary rock in a river bed in the area known as Yellowknife Bay.

Using its battery of onboard instruments, NASA scientists were able to detect some of the critical elements required for life – including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon. The rover is currently on a trek to its primary scientific target – a three-mile-high peak at the center of Gale Crater named Mount Sharp – where it will attempt to further reinforce its findings.

mt_sharp_space8. Scientists Turn Brain Matter Invisible:

Since its inception as a science, neuroanatomy – the study of the brain’s functions and makeup – has been hampered by the fact that the brain is composed of “grey matter”. For one, microscopes cannot look beyond a millimeter into biological matter before images in the viewfinder get blurry. And the common technique of “sectioning” – where a brain is frozen in liquid nitrogen and then sliced into thin sheets for analysis – results in  tissue being deformed, connections being severed, and information being lost.

But a new technique, known as CLARITY, works by stripping away all of a tissue’s light-scattering lipids, while leaving all of its significant structures – i.e. neurons, synapses, proteins and DNA – intact and in place. Given that this solution will allow researchers to study samples of the brains without having to cut them up, it is already being hailed as one of the most important advances for neuroanatomy in decades.

9. Scientists Detect Neutrinos from Another Galaxy:

In April of this year, physicists working at the IceCube South Pole Observatory took part in an expedition which drilled a hole some 2.4 km (1.5 mile) hole deep into an Antarctic glacier. At the bottom of this hole, they managed to capture 28 neutrinos, a mysterious and extremely powerful subatomic particle that can pass straight through solid matter. But the real kicker was the fact that these particles likely originated from beyond our solar system – and possibly even our galaxy.

That was impressive in and off itself, but was made even more so when it was learned that these particular neutrinos are over a billion times more powerful than the ones originating from our sun. So whatever created them would have had to have been cataclysmicly powerful – such as a supernova explosion. This find, combined with the detection technique used to find them, has ushered in a new age of astronomy.


10. Human Cloning Becomes a Reality:

Ever since Dolly the sheep was cloned via somatic cell nuclear transfer, scientists have wondered if a similar technique could be used to produce human embryonic stem cells. And as of May, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University managed to do just that. This development is not only a step toward developing replacement tissue to treat diseases, but one that might also hasten the day when it will be possible to create cloned, human babies.


11. World’s First Lab Grown Meat:

In May of this year, after years of research and hundred of thousands of dollars invested, researchers at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands created the world’s first in vitro burgers. The burgers were fashioned from stem cells taken from a cow’s neck which were placed in growth medium, grown into strips of muscle tissue, and then assembled into a burger. This development may prove to be a viable solution to world hunger, especially in the coming decades as the world’s population increases by several billion.

labmeat112. The Amplituhedron Discovered:

If 2012 will be remembered as the year that the Higgs Boson was finally discovered, 2013 will forever be remembered as the year of the Amplituhedron. After many decades of trying to reformulate quantum field theory to account for gravity, scientists at Harvard University discovered of a jewel-like geometric object that they believe will not only simplify quantum science, but forever alters our understanding of the universe.

This geometric shape, which is a representation of the coherent mathematical structure behind quantum field theory, has simplified scientists’ notions of the universe by postulating that space and time are not fundamental components of reality, but merely consequences of the”jewel’s” geometry. By removing locality and unitarity, this discovery may finally lead to an explanation as to how all the fundamental forces of the universe coexist.

amplutihedron_spanThese forces are weak nuclear forces, strong nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity. For decades, scientists have been forced to treat them according to separate principles – using Quantum Field Theory to explain the first three, and General Relativity to explain gravity. But now, a Grand Unifying Theory or Theory of Everything may actually be possible.

13. Bioprinting Explodes:

The year of 2013 was also a boon year for bioprinting – namely, using the technology of additive manufacturing to create samples of living tissue. This began in earnest in February, where a team of researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland used a new printing technique to deposit live embryonic stem cells onto a surface in a specific pattern. Using this process, they were able to create entire cultures of tissue which could be morphed into specific types of tissue.

Later that month, researchers at Cornell University used a technique known as “high-fidelity tissue engineering” – which involved using artificial living cells deposited by a 3-D printer over shaped cow cartilage – to create a replacement human ear. This was followed some months later in April when a San Diego-based firm named Organova announced that they were able to create samples of liver cells using 3D printing technology.

And then in August, researchers at Huazhong University of Science and Technology were able to use the same technique create the world first, living kidneys. All of this is pointing the way towards a future where human body parts can be created simply by culturing cells from a donor’s DNA, and replacement organs can be synthetically created, revolutionizing medicine forever.

14. Bionic Machinery Expands:

If you’re a science buff, or someone who has had to go through life with a physical disability, 2013 was also a very big year for the field of bionic machinery. This consisted not only of machinery that could meld with the human body in order to perform fully-human tasks – thus restoring ambulatory ability to people dealing with disabling injuries or diseases – but also biomimetic machinery.

ArgusIIThe first took place in February, where researchers from the University of of Tübingen unveiled the world’s first high-resolution, user-configurable bionic eye. Known officially as the “Alpha IMS retinal prosthesis”, the device helps to restore vision by converted light into electrical signals your retina and then transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve. This was followed in August by the Argus II “retinal prosthetic system” being approved by the FDA, after 20 years of research, for distribution in the US.

Later that same month, the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland unveiled the world’s first sensory prosthetic hand. Whereas existing mind-controlled prosthetic devices used nerve signals from the user to control the movements of the limb, this new device sends electrostimulus to the user’s nerves to simulate the sensation of touch.

prosthetic_originalThen in April, the University of Georgia announced that it had created a brand of “smart skin” – a transparent, flexible film that uses 8000 touch-sensitive transistors – that is just as sensitive as the real thing. In July, researchers in Israel took this a step further, showing how a gold-polyester nanomaterial would be ideal as a material for artificial skin, since it experiences changes in conductivity as it is bent.

15. 400,000 Year-Old DNA Confuses Humanity’s Origin Story:

Another discovery made this year has forced anthropologist to rethink human evolution. This occurred in Spain early in December, where a team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany recovered a 400,000 year-old thigh bone. Initially thought to be a forerunner of the Neanderthal branch of hominids, it was later learned that it belonged to the little-understood branch of hominins known as Denisovans.

Human-evoThe discordant findings are leading anthropologists to reconsider the last several hundred thousand years of human evolution. In short, it indicates that there may yet be many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover. What’s more, there DNA may prove to be part of modern humans genetic makeup, as interbreeding is a possibility.

News From Space: More Happening on Mars!

marsIt seems like weeks since the Red Planet has been featured in the news. But that’s to be expected when the two biggest news makers – the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers – are either performing a long drive or climbing a tall mountain. Not much in the way of updates are expected, unless something goes wrong. Luckily, these rovers always find ways to surprise us.

After over a year on Mars, Curiosity has accomplished a long list of firsts. This latest occurred last week, when NASA announced that Curiosity picked up the pace of its long trek to Mount Sharp by completing its first two-day autonomous drive, in which the rover did one leg of an autonomous drive on Sunday, then completed it on Monday.

mars_scapePreviously, Curiosity’s autonomous drives were only executed after finishing a drive planned by mission control on Earth using images supplied by Curiosity. These images would then be uploaded its on board computer, and the rover would compare them with images taken by its navigation camera to plot a safe path. The drive completed Monday is the first where the rover ended an autonomous drive on one day, then continued it the next day by itself.

This is all thanks to the incorporation of the new autonomous navigation (or autonav) software, which NASA finished incorporating and debuted at the end of August. According to NASA, this new system not only allows the rover to drive itself for longer stretches of time, it also allows mission control to plan activities for several days, which could be implemented on Fridays and before holidays so the rover can continue to work while the staff are away.

curiosity_hirise_tracksAccording to NASA, on Sunday, the new software allowed Curiosity to drive about 55 m (180 ft) along a path planned by mission control, then switched to autonomous mode and traveled another 38m (125 ft) with the rover selecting waypoints and the safest path. It then stored navigation variables in its non-volatile memory, then reloaded them on Monday to drive another 32 m (105 ft).

In all, Curiosity covered about 125 meters (410 ft) in total. This brought it within about 80 m (262 ft) from “Cooperstown,” a rocky outcrop where the rover will be conducting another series of scientific examinations. These will be the first time that Curiosity has had the opportunity to use its arm-mounted instruments since September 22.

mountsharp_galecraterAccording to Kevin Lewis of Princeton University, who spoke about the upcoming studies in “Cooperstown”:

What interests us about this site is an intriguing outcrop of layered material visible in the orbital images. We want to see how the local layered outcrop at Cooperstown may help us relate the geology of Yellowknife Bay [on Mars] to the geology of Mount Sharp.

This stop will be only brief, as the rover team are anxious to get Curiosity back on its way to Mount Sharp. Once there, it will begin digging, drilling and generally seeking out the vast caches of minerals that the mountain is expected to have, ones which could potentially support a habitable environment. Exciting times ahead!


News From Mars: Curiosity and Opportunity On the Move

marsMars has been quite the source of news in recent weeks. And perhaps its the fact that I got to witness some truly interesting astronomical phenomena yesterday – i.e. Sunspots through a telescope – but all of them seem to have caught my attention at once. And given their importance to the ongoing exploration of Mars and our Solar System, I would be remiss if I didn’t pass them on.

The first bit of news began late last month, when the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped this image of the Curiosity rover as it made its way through the “Glenelg” area of Gale Crater. The rover appeared as a little more than a blueish dot in the picture, but much more visible was the rover’s tracks.

curiosity_hirise_tracks This unique photo was made possible thanks to a little maneuvering and a some serious alignment. Basically, the folks working at the Mars Science Laboratory were able to bring the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) into position between the Sun and curiosity, bringing the Sun, MRO, and the rover on the surface were in a near-perfect alignment.

HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen addressed the photos on the HiRISE website and explained how it was all made possible:

The rover tracks stand out clearly in this view, extending west to the landing site where two bright, relatively blue spots indicate where MSL’s landing jets cleared off the redder surface dust. When HiRISE captured this view, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was rolled for an eastward-looking angle rather than straight downward. The afternoon sun illuminated the scene from the western sky, so the lighting was nearly behind the camera. Specifically, the angle from sun to orbiter to rover was just 5.47 degrees.

Curiosity has since moved on and is now heading towards the large mound in Gale Crater officially named Aeolis Mons (aka. Mount Sharp).

curiosity_roadmapWhich brings us to the second news item in this week’s Mars bulletin. It seems that since July 4th, after finishing up a seven months survey in Yellowknife Bay, Curiosity has achieved a long-distance driving record as it made its way to Mount Sharp. This took place on Saturday July 21st (Sol 340), when Curiosity drove a distance of 100.3 meters (109.7 yards) in a single day.

To give you some perspective, that’s the length of a football field (at least in the US), a distance that is without equal since she first landed inside the Gale Crater nearly a year ago. The previous record for a one-day drive was about half a football field – 49 meters (54 yards) – and was achieved on Sept. 26, 2012 (Sol 50), roughly seven weeks after Curiosity made its tense, nail-biting landing.

Curiosity-departs-Glenelg-Sol-324_2a_Ken-Kremer--580x291Paolo Bellutta, a rover planner at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif, explained what made the feat possible in a statement:

What enabled us to drive so far on Sol 340 was starting at a high point and also having Mastcam images giving us the size of rocks so we could be sure they were not hazards. We could see for quite a distance, but there was an area straight ahead that was not clearly visible, so we had to find a path around that area.

A combination of increased experience by the rover’s engineers and a series of intermediate software upgrades have also played a key role in getting Curiosity on its way to the 5.5 kilometer (3.4 mile) high Mount Sharp. This is expected to improve even more as soon as new driving software called autonomous navigation (or autonav) finishes development and is incorporated.

mountsharp_galecraterFollowing another lengthy drive of 62.4 meters (68.2 yards) on Wednesday, July 23 (Sol 342), the mission’s total driving distance  stands at 1.23 kilometers (0.81 mile) so far. But Mount Sharp still lies about another 8 km (5 miles) away at this point, so we can be expect to be hearing plenty from the rover between now and when it arrives.

For the record, it has already been discovered that the mountain contains vast caches of minerals that could potentially support a habitable environment. So when Curiosity arrives, we can expect another string of exciting finds!

Opportunity-nears-Solander-Point-Sol-3374-N1-crop_Ken-Kremer-580x309And it is this subject of mountain goals which brings me to the last, but by no means least, of the Martian updates. While Curiosity has been making its way towards Mt. Sharp to conduct research on potentially habitable environments, Opportunity is just days away from reaching Solander Point, another Martian mountain which NASA seeks to learn more about.

This comes on the heels of the rover’s ten year, ongoing mission that was only ever expected to last ninety days. According to an update from Ray Arvidson earlier today, the mission’s deputy principal scientific investigator from Washington University in St. Louis, the rover is now just 180 meters away from the new mountain.

opportunity_roadmapAs NASA had previously stated, Solander Point represents ‘something completely different’ for the rover, being the first mountain it will ever climb. What’s more, the mountains mineral wealth may possess the key chemical ingredients necessary to sustain Martian life forms, and the area exhibits signatures related to water flow.

In many ways, you could say Solander Point represents a chance for the Mars Science Laboratory to find the elusive “organic molecules” they’ve been searching for since Curiosity first landed. And if it’s the veteran rover that finds the first hard evidence of their existence, it would be quite the feather in the Opportunity team’s cap.

opportunity_bdayBut before moving onto the first leg of ascent, Arvidson explained that the rover will be making a brief pause in its current location to conduce some exciting experiments. Thanks to observations made of the area by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter with its CRISM instrument (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometers for Mars), the rover will be conducting some on-the-spot analysis to see if there is indeed evidence of water.

This past spring, Opportunity made the historic discovery of clay minerals and a habitable environment on a low hill called Cape York, the rover’s prior stop along the rim of Endeavour Crater. Solander was selected as the robot’s next destination because it also offers a goldmine of scientific data. Another reason was because its north facing slopes will be a boon to Opportunity’s solar wings, ensuring it more power before Martian winter sets in.

opportunity_missionmapBut since Opportunity is currently sitting on a healthy supply of power and has some time before the onset of her 6th Martian winter, the team decided to take a small detour to the southeast and spend several days exploring the area for more evidence of water-bearing minerals.

If successful, this will be yet another accomplishment for the rover during its long tenure of service to NASA. Today marks the 3380th day of continuous service for the rover – aka. Sol 3380 – a mission which has resulted in numerous scientific finds, over 182,000 images, and a driving distance of roughly 38 kilometers (23.6 miles). This, as already mentioned, puts Opportunity in the top spot for the longest distance traveled on another planet.

Yes, it seems that the Red Planet is certainly doing all it can to keep explorers and scientists intrigued. No telling what we might learn between now and the point when manned missions take place, and human astronauts are able to see the surface and study its mysteries close up. Personally, I’m hoping for signs of existing supplies of water, not to mention those tricky organic molecules. If settlement and terraforming are ever to take place, we need to know we’ve got something to work with!

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Life-Giving Elements Found on Mars!

Curiosity_drillingsCuriosity has just finished analyzing the samples collected from its first drilling operation at the John Klein rock formation in Yellowknife Bay. And what it found confirms what scientists have suspected about the Red Planet for some time. Contained within grey the dust collected from the rock’s interior, the rover discovered some of the key chemical ingredients necessary for life to have thrived on early Mars billions of years ago.

After running the two aspirin-sized samples through its two analytical chemistry labs (SAM and CheMin), the Mars Science Laboratory was able to identify the presence of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus in the sample – all of which are essential constituents for life as we know it based on organic molecules.

Curiosity_chemWhat’s more, according to David Blake – the principal investigator for the CheMin instrument – a large portion of the sample was made up of clay minerals, which in itself is telling. The combined presence of these basic elements and abundant phyllosilicate clay minerals indicate that the area was once home to a fresh water environment, one where Martian microbes could once have thrived in the distant past.

By confirming this, the Curiosity Rover has officially met one of its most important research goals – proving that all the elements necessary for life to flourish were once present on Mars. And when you consider that the Curiosity team was not expecting to find evidence of phyllosilicate minerals in the Gale Crater, the find was an especial delight. Based on spectral observations conducted from orbit, phyllosilicates were only expected to be found in the lower reaches of Mount Sharp, which is Curiosity’s ultimate destination.

Curiosity-Sol-169_5C1b_Ken-KremerSo what’s next for Curiosity? According to John Grotzinger, the Principal Investigator for the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity will remain in the Yellowknife Bay area for several additional weeks or months to fully characterize the area. The rover will also conduct at least one more drilling campaign to try and replicate the results, check for organic molecules and search for new discoveries.


Curiosity Drills!

curiosity_drillsIn what is a first amongst cosmic first, the Curiosity Rover drilled into Martian rock and collected fresh samples from the resulting dust. The precision drilling took place this past Friday, Feb. 8, 2013 – during the 182nd day of the mission – after numerous tests and procedures were conducted. The images were beamed back to Earth on the following day (Saturday, Feb 9) amidst a great deal of fanfare and celebration.

Given the fact that it took them nearly a decade of painstaking work and effort to design, assemble, launch and land the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, it’s obvious while the rover team is overjoyed with this latest development. What’s more, this was more than just a first in the history of space exploration, it also marked Curiosity’s 6 month anniversary on the Red Planet since touching down on Aug. 6, 2012 inside Gale Crater.

John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, had this to say about the drilling:

“The most advanced planetary robot ever designed now is a fully operating analytical laboratory on Mars. This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August, another proud day for America.”

curiosity_drilling_sightCuriosity drilled a circular hole about  16 mm (0.63 inch) wide and 64mm (2.5 inches) deep into the red slab at the “John Klein” rock site. The  fine-grained sedimentary rock, which is rich with hydrated mineral veins of calcium sulfate, parted to produce a slurry of grey trailings surrounding the hole. These dust samples were then collected for examination using the rover’s on board laboratory.

The team believes the area known as Yellowknife Bay, where the drilling took place, repeatedly experienced percolation of flowing liquid water eons ago when Mars was warmer and wetter, and potentially more hospitable to the possible evolution of life. These latest samples, they hope, will offer additional compelling evidence to this effect, and also some traces of organic molecules.

curiosity_drillbitWhile this may sound like an ordinary day around NASA, it represents a quantum leap in terms of what remote landed craft are capable of doing. At no time in the past have astronauts been able to place mobile research platforms on a distant planet, collect samples of said planet, and conduct research on them, all the while beaming the results and images back to labs at Earth for analysis.

What’s next for the rover? Well, once the analysis is complete, the 1 ton robot will continue to investigate Yellowknife Bay and the Glenelg area. After that, it will set off on a nearly year long trek to her main destination – the sedimentary layers of the lower reaches of the  5 km (3 mile) high mountain named Mount Sharp – some 10 km (6 miles) away from its current position.


News From Mars!

An interesting slew of news has been coming from NASA recently, courtesy of the Curiosity Rover and its mission to Mars. First, there was the announcement by John Grotzinger on NPR radio that Curiosity’s science team had discovered something potentially “earth-shattering” on the Red Planet, which came just two days ago. Since then, researchers over at NASA have been keeping a tight lip on what that might be, though it seems to be taking an extraodinary effort to do so. One can only imagine what they’re dying to tell us…

But it seems more stories are coming in the wake of this. First, there was the revelation by the Curiosity Rover that Mars radiation levels, once thought to be problematic for life, are actually safe for humans. According to Don Hassler, the principal investigator on Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector instrument (RAD), Curiosity determined that “the Mars atmosphere is acting as a shield for the radiation on the surface and as the atmosphere gets thicker, that provides more of a shield and therefore we see a dip in our radiation dose.”

Apparently, the levels are equal to what astronauts deal with on the International Space Station, which means people in suits will be able to walk on the Red Planet safely once a manned mission is mounted. Knowing that they can conduct surveys on the surface without additional radiation shields should prove to be a boon for colonization as well. More settlers will certainly be drawn to Mars now that they know they can settle in without having to worry about little things like radiation sickness or mutations!

Third, there was the news that in the wake of making its “one for the history books” discovery, that Curiosity has finished collecting and analyzing soil samples and is preparing to move on. The final checks and preps were made amidst ethereal whirlwinds and twisters, which are characteristic of the region known as the “Gale Crater”, where it has been conducting its research for the past month. The rover is now being prepared to move on in search of suitable targets for a compact rock drill, the final major sample acquisition system to be tested.

Ashwin Vasavada, the deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory rover at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif, had this to say on the next phase of the mission: “We still would like to get a little further into this Glenelg region where we see this diversity of rocks and layered rocks and other really interesting terrain. And then we still have a goal in the next month or two of doing the big U-turn and heading up to Mount Sharp.”

Mount Sharp is a 3-mile-high mound of layered terrain that sits in the center of the Gale Crater, where Curiosity is expected to spend the bulk of its planned two-year mission. In the meantime, the research team needs to go over all the information Curiosity has sent back, including an ongoing analysis of the martian weather.

On top of all that, there’s still the matter of that “earth shaking news”. How about it NASA? You too, Grotzinger? We’re ready and waiting… how much more time do your researchers need before they’re sure and are free to break the news they are so clearly dying to share? I still say its organic molecules, but what do I know?