News from Mars: Mysterious Martian Ball Found!

Mars_ballThe rocky surface of Mars has turned up some rather interestingly-shaped objects in the past. First there was the Martian rat, followed shortly thereafter by the Martian donut; and very recently, the Martian thighbone. And in this latest case, the Curiosity rover has spotted what appears to be a perfectly-round ball. Even more interesting is the fact that this sphere may be yet another indication of Mars’ watery past.

The rock ball was photographed on Sept. 11 – on Sol 746 of the rover’s mission on Mars – while Curiosity was exploring the Gale Crater. One of Curiosity’s cameras captured several images of the centimeter-wide ball as part of the stream of photographs was taking. The scientists working at the Mars Science Laboratory based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), immediately began to examine it for indications of what it could be.

mars-selfie-01-140501As Ian O’Neill of Discovery News, who spoke with NASA after the discovery, wrote:

According to MSL scientists based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., the ball isn’t as big as it looks — it’s approximately one centimeter wide. Their explanation is that it is most likely something known as a “concretion”… and they were created during sedimentary rock formation when Mars was abundant in liquid water many millions of years ago.

Curiosity has already found evidence of water at a dig site in Yellowknife Bay, which took place shortly after it landed in the Gale Crater two years ago. In addition, this is not the first time a Mars rover has found rocky spheres while examining the surface. In 2004, NASA’s Opportunity rover photographed a group of tiny balls made of a ferrous mineral called hematite. Opportunity photographed still more spheres, of a different composition, eight years later.

mars-blueberriesThe spheres likely formed through a process called “concretion”, where minerals precipitate within sedimentary rock, often into oval or spherical shapes. When the rock erodes due to wind or water, it leaves the balls of minerals behind and exposed. If in fact concretion caused the Mars spheres, then they would be evidence there was once water on the planet. However, some scientists believe the rock balls might be leftover from meteorites that broke up in the Martian atmosphere.

Curiosity is now at the base of Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) – The 5.6 km-high (3.5 mile) mountain in the center of Gale Crater – scientists are excited to commence the rover’s main science goal. This will consists of more drilling into layered rock and examining the powder so scientist can gain an idea about how habitable the Red Planet was throughout its ancient history, and whether or not it may have been able to support microbial life.

MarsCuriosityTrek_20140911_AMission managers will need to be careful as the rover has battered wheels from rougher terrain than expected. Because of this, the rover will slowly climb the slope of Mount Sharp driving backwards, so as to minimize the chance of any further damage. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will also be on hand to help, photographing the route from above to find the smoothest routes.

Despite the wear and tear that the little rover has experienced in its two years on the Martian surface, it has discovered some amazing things and NASA scientists anticipate that it will accomplish much more in the course of its operational history. And as it carried on with its mission to decode the secrets of Mars, we can expect it will find lots more interesting rocks – spherical, rat-shaped, ringed, femur-like, or otherwise.

 

Sources: cbc.ca, universetoday.com, news.discovery.com

News from Mars: MAVEN Orbiter Arrives!

maven_tv_backdropIn November 2013, NASA launched the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) space probe from Cape Canaveral. Described as a “time machine” for Mars, the orbiter would spend the next ten months traversing space, assuming an orbit around the Red Planet, and look for an answer as to how Mars went from being a planet with an atmosphere and water to the dried out husk that we know today.

And this evening, after trekking some 711 million kilometers (442 million-mile) across our Solar System, MAVEN will have arrived in orbit around Mars and will begin its year-long mission to study the planet’s upper atmosphere. The arrival will be broadcast live, courtesy of NASA TV and Space.com. The live webcast will run from 9:30 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. EDT (0130 to 0245 GMT), and if all goes well, MAVEN will enter orbit around Mars at 9:50 p.m. EDT (0250 GMT).

maven_launchAs David Mitchell, NASA’s MAVEN project manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement:

So far, so good with the performance of the spacecraft and payloads on the cruise to Mars. The team, the flight system, and all ground assets are ready for Mars orbit insertion.

Though plans to study Mars’ atmosphere in detail have been in the works for years, the MAVEN program received a big push from the ongoing efforts from the Curiosity rover. During its ongoing mission to study the surface of Mars, Curiosity was able to confirm that Mars had extensive surface water billions of years ago. This revelation came very early in the mission, and indicated some rather interesting things about Mars’ past.

Mars-snow-header-640x353For instance, although Mars is now too cold for flowing water today, it might have had a thicker atmosphere in the past that warmed its surface and allowed the liquid to remain stable on the surface. And while scientists have a pretty good idea how it was lost (i.e. too far our Sun, too low a gravity field), the rate of loss and when it disappeared are just some of the questions that MAVEN will attempt to answer.

Much of what scientists know about Mars’ upper atmosphere comes from just a few minutes’ worth of data from the two Viking landers that took measurements as they made their way to the Martian surface in the 1970s. This time around, NASA will be able to collect data for an entire year, gathering far more data than either the Viking landers or any other spacecraft has since had the opportunity to do.

maven_atmo1As Bruce Jakosky, the mission’s principal investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, explained it:

The MAVEN science mission focuses on answering questions about where did the water that was present on early Mars go, about where did the carbon dioxide go. These are important questions for understanding the history of Mars, its climate, and its potential to support at least microbial life.

NASA scientists understand that Mars’ upper atmosphere acts as an escape zone for molecules floating dozens of miles from the planet’s surface. They theorize that as the solar wind hits the atmosphere, the radiation strips away the lighter molecules and flings them into space forever. To test this hypothesis, MAVEN will be examining the state of Mars’ upper atmosphere, and ionosphere to determine its interactions with the solar wind.

maven_atmosphereIn so doing, NASA hopes to determine what the current rates of escape are for neutral gases and ions, and thus get a better picture of how long it took for the atmosphere to degrade and when it began degrading. The upper atmosphere of Mars likely changes as the sun’s activity increases and decreases, which is why MAVEN investigators hope to run the mission for longer than a year.

MAVEN will began making science measurements around Nov. 8, due to it taking a short break from its commissioning phase to watch Comet Siding Spring pass close by on Oct. 19. The $671 million MAVEN spacecraft is one of two missions that launched toward Mars last November and which are making their arrival this month. The other probe is India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, which launched just before MAVEN and will arrive at the Red Planet this Wednesday (Sept. 24).

It is an exciting time for space exploration, and the coming years are sure to be characterized by an escalating and accelerating rate of learning. Be sure to head on over to Space.com to watch the arrival broadcast live. And be sure to check out the following videos – the Mars Arrival trailer; NASA Goddard Center’s “Targeting Mars” video; and the NASA MAVEN PSA, hosted by LeVar Burton:

MAVEN Mars Arrival Trailer:


Targeting Mars:


LeVar Burton Shares MAVEN’s Story:


Sources:
space.com, (2), nasa.gov

News from Mars: Curiosity Arrives at Mount Sharp

curiosity-mars-self-portrait-crop-640x353After two years exploring the Martian surface, the Curiosity Rover has finally reached its primary science destination – the foot of Mount Sharp, officially known as Aeolis Mons. Now that it’s there, it will begin its ascent of the rock formation, drill into rocks and analyze the different strata in the hopes of learning more about the history of the Red Planet. This is an event a long time in the making, and may prove to yield some of the greatest scientific discoveries ever made.

Located in the heart of the Gale Crater, Mount Sharp is like a layer cake, holding a chronology of past events reaching back billions of years. Because of this, it is an ideal place to find evidence that the Martian surface and atmosphere were once capable of supporting life. It took two years and one month for Curiosity reach the foot of this mountain, which lies some 5500 meters (18,000 feet) above the floor of Gale Crater.

MarsCuriosityTrek_20140911_AThe mountain is the central peak in a crater that measures 154 km/96 miles in diameter and which was formed when a meteor impacted the surface between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years ago. Beyond a certain size, and depending on the gravity of the planet, craters like this all have a central peak. But Mount Sharp represents something much more, otherwise NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory wouldn’t be bothering with it.

Basically, Mars scientists believe that after its creation, the Gale crater was completely filled with sedimentary material from a series of huge floods, or by dust and ice deposits like those that happened at the Martian polar caps. The deposition over 2 billion years left a series sedimentary layers that filled the crater. Following the deposition of the layers, there was a long period of erosion which has finally led to the condition of the crater today.

mountsharp_galecraterThe erosion by some combination of aeolean (wind) forces and water (additional flooding), scooped out the huge crater, re-exposing most of the original depth. However, covering the original central peak are many sedimentary layers of debris. Gale crater’s original central peak actually remains completely hidden and covered by sedimentation. And it is this that attracted scientists with the Curiosity rover to the base of Mount Sharp.

Within the sedimentary layers is a sequential record of the environmental conditions on Mars going back over 2 billion years. While at the base, Curiosity will be able to examine the oldest sedimentary layers; but as it climbs the flanks of the mountain, it will be able to step forward in time. Each layer and its age will reveal information such as how much water was present, whether the water was alkaline or acidic, if there is any organic compounds.

john_klein_curiosity-2The discovery of organic compounds on Mount Sharp could be “Earth shaking”, since the discovery of organics is of very high importance to this mission. Already, over the two year trek, Curiosity has seen numerous signs of the flow of water and sedimentation. Interestingly enough, evidence began to turn up way back in Yellowknife Bay — one of its first destinations, which it visited almost two years ago. But as of yet, signs of organic compounds have remained illusive.

What’s more, Curiosity sadly lacks the necessary equipment to look for evidence of microbial fossils or other signatures of life. Fortunately, the next rover – the Mars 2020 rover – will be equipped with the necessary tools to work out whether Mars ever harbored life. In any case, because of the lack of organic compounds in Yellowknife, NASA decided to continue to Mount Sharp, which is currently the best place to dig up scientific data about Mars’ past.

MSL_TraverseMap_Sol0743-2048Curiosity is currently at the base of Mount Sharp, in a region called the Pahrump Hills, where it will continue on to the Murray Formation. Once there, it will take a drill sample of some rock and then continue up Mount Sharp towards the Hematite Ridge where two drill sites await. This farthest site is about 8 km (5 mi) away from its present position, and Curiosity has driven only 9 km since it landed in 2012. So there’s plenty of trekking and work ahead!

One of the greatest challenges is finding a path that will reduce the stress on Curiosity’s wheels, which have been put through some serious wear and tear in the past two years. Because of this, the rover is being driven in reverse for the time being, and the team is looking the path with the least amount of sharp rocks. However, the Mars Curiosity remains confident that the mobility system will be capable of surviving the ten year life span of the rover’s power supply.

And be sure to check out this “Curiosity Rover Report” that talks about this historic accomplishment, courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

Sources: universetoday.com, extremetech.com, jpl.nasa.gov, space.com

News From Mars: Mysterious “Thigh Bone” Revealed!

mars-thigh-bone-illusion-curiosity-photoTwo weeks ago, the Curiosity rover spotted an object on the surface of Mars that bore a striking resemblance to a femur (aka. athigh bone). This sighting caused a bit of a media stir and fueled speculation – mainly by conspiracy and UFO theorists – that proof of life on Mars had finally been found. This claim was quickly picked up by media outlets and began to spread like a bad strain of flu.

Alas, NASA has since announced that the finding, much like the Martian “donut” and “rat”, was just another piece of oddly-shaped rock. Mission scientists believe that here too, the rock was sculpted into its unusual shape by wind or water erosion. NASA announced all this when they released Curiosity’s “thigh bone” photo with a science explanation on Thursday (Aug. 21). In the caption, they said that:

No bones about it! Seen by Mars rover Curiosity using its MastCam, this Mars rock may look like a femur thigh bone. Mission science team members think its shape is likely sculpted by erosion, either wind or water.

If life ever existed on Mars, scientists expect that it would be small simple life forms called microbes. Mars likely never had enough oxygen in its atmosphere and elsewhere to support more complex organisms. Thus, large fossils are not likely.

MARS-COMET-surfaceIn short, the long-sought after signs of life that NASA is searching for have yet to be found. The Curiosity rover has found evidence that Mars was once a habitable place in the ancient past, mainly by determining with certainty that it once held water and a viable atmosphere. However, to date, there is no evidence that creatures large enough to leave a bone behind ever existed on the planet.

There is a long tradition of seeing shapes in Mars rocks that don’t reflect reality. The phenomenon in which the human brain perceives faces, animals or other shapes that aren’t really there is known as pareidolia; and when it comes to Mars, there is a long and fertile history of this taking place. In fact, in 1877 when astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli looked up at Mars when it was in opposition, he spotted a network of lines that ran along the planet.

martian_canalsLater astronomers confirmed these sightings and erroneously thought them to be canals, an observation which was quickly seized upon by the popular imagination and spawned an entire mythos of there being a civilization on Mars. This civilization, made up of little green men known as Martians, is the entire basis of alien mythology which would go on to inspire 20th century works as The War of the Worlds and The Martian Chronicles.

And for those old enough to recall, the “Martian face”, which was captured by the Viking Orbiter in 1976, is a more modern example. As you can see from the picture below (lower right hand), the low-resolution photos of the Cydonian mesa led many people to see a human face in it. This led to much speculation and more than a few crackpot theories about a civilization on Mars.

mars_faceHowever, high-res photos taken in 2001 by the Mars Global Surveyor probe (center) put these claims largely to rest by showing that the “face” was just an optical illusion. However, many of these same theorists moved on to claim that pyramid-like formations in that same region (Cydonia) so closely resembled those of Giza that there had to be a common explanation – i.e. aliens built the pyramids.

And in all cases, the golden rule seems to apply: never let little a thing like the facts or plausibility get in the way of a good story! As the rover continues on its long mission to find evidence of life on Mars, I am sure there will be plenty more pictures being seized upon by oddball theorists who are looking to peddle their oddball theories. Some of them are sure to be entertaining, so stay tuned!

Sources: cbc.ca, space.com

News From Mars: Curiosity Celebrates 2 Years!

curiosity_peakEarlier this month, Curiosity marked its second year on the Red Planet, and this anniversary comes amidst plenty of exciting news and developments. Ever since the rover touched down at the Bradbury Landing site inside the Gale Crater on August 5, 2012 at 10:31 pm PDT (August 6, 05:31 GMT), it has been busily searching for signs that life once existed on Earth’s neighbor. And as it enters into its third year of exploration, it is getting closer to accomplishing this lofty goal.

The nuclear-powered explorer is the largest, most advanced rover ever built. And since nothing like it had ever flown before and the maintenance facility was over 160 million kilometers (1oo million miles) away, the first months that Curiosity spent on Mars involved an array of system tests before it took it first tentative rolls across the Martian sands on its roundabout path to Mount Sharp.

curiosity_roadmap1Curiosity’s main mission was to find out if there are any places on Mars where life could have once existed – specifically, areas displaying minerals and geology that could have been produced by water. The Bradbury Landing site, where it touched down, turned out to be very close to an ancient dried lake bed in an area named Yellowknife Bay. According to NASA, this lake bed may have been able to sustain microbial life billions of years ago.

And then, barely six months after landing, the scientists struck gold when they drilled into a rock outcrop named “John Klein” at Yellowknife Bay and unexpectedly discovered the clay bearing minerals on the crater floor. This was the first instance of Curiosity finding clay-bearing minerals. or phyllosilicates, which are a key sign that organic molecules could exist on the planet.

Curiosity_drillingsAs Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the Caltech said in a statement to mark the anniversary:

Before landing, we expected that we would need to drive much farther before answering that habitability question. We were able to take advantage of landing very close to an ancient streambed and lake. Now we want to learn more about how environmental conditions on Mars evolved, and we know where to go to do that.

Compared to its first year, which was marked by many firsts – such as the first drilling operation on Mars, the first laser firing, and first UV night scans – Curiosity’s second year on the Red Planet has been more routine. However, it hasn’t been without its share of excitement. In February, the rover cleared a dune that blocked its progress and in July it negotiated a detour around rocky terrain at Zabriskie Plateau.

curiosity-2nd-year-2However, by far, the majority of the rovers second Earth year on the Red Planet has been spent driving as fast as possible towards a safe entry point to the slopes of Mount Sharp. To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 9.0 kilometers (5.5 miles) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012, and her on board camera has snapped over 174,000 images – many of which have been transformed into panoramic shots of the surface.

The desired destination for the rover is now about 3 kms (2 miles) southwest of its current location. This consists of a bedrock unit that for the first time is actually part of the humongous mountain known as Mount Sharp. As the primary destination on her ongoing mission, this layered mountain in the Gale Crater towers 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) into the Martian sky, and is believed to hold the most compelling evidence of life yet.

mountsharp_galecraterThe sedimentary layers in the lower slopes of Mount Sharp are the principal reason why the science team specifically chose Gale Crater as the primary landing site. Using high resolution spectral observations collected by NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), they were able to determine the presence of deposits of clay-bearing minerals. or phyllosilicates, a key sign that organic molecules could exist on the planet.

In late July of this year, the rover arrived in an area of sandy terrain called “Hidden Valley” which is on the planned route ahead leading to “Pahrump Hills”. Scientists anticipated that the outcrops here would offer a preview of a geological unit that is part of the base of Mount Sharp for the first time since landing. However, the sharp edged rocks caused significant damage to the rovers six aluminum wheels, forcing it to make a detour.

Mars_rovermapThis detour will take Curiosity to a similar site called “Bonanza King” to carry out its fourth drilling mission. According to NASA, this is no great loss because the two areas are geologically connected and the space agency is keen to look at a formation that is different from the crater floor formations encountered so far. Engineers are studying Bonanza King to see if its is suitable for drilling by assessing whether or not the plates seen on the surface are loose.

When drilling operations resume, NASA will study alternative routes to Mount Sharp and determine how well the rover’s wheels can handle sand ripples. However, as Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences, said during an interview during the rover’s second anniversary in Washington, DC : “Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year.”

Godspeed, little rover! And I do hope that it finds the long-sought-after organic particles it has been looking for since the mission began. This discovery will not only show that life once existed on Mars (and still does in some capacity) it will also be one of the greatest scientific finds of all time, and maybe even serve as the starting point for ensuring that it can exist again.

terraforming

Sources: universetoday.com, gizmag.com, (2)

News from Mars: Laser-Blasting and Soil Sampling

mars_lifeAs the exploration of Mars goes on, the small army of robotic rovers, satellites and orbiters continue to provide us with information, photographs and discoveries that remind us of how great a mystery the Red Planet truly is. For instance, in the past month, two major stories have been announced concerning the nature of Martian soil, its ancient history, and some of the more exciting moments in it’s exploration.

For example, Curiosity made news as its high resolution camera caught an image of sparks being generated as it zapped a Martian rock. In it’s lifetime, the rover has used its million watt Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) laser to zap over 600 rock or soil targets as part of its mission. However, this was the first time that the rover team was able to get the arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to capture the action as it occurred.

Curiosity-Laser-BeamThe ChemCam laser is used to determine the composition of Martian rocks and soils at a distance of up to 8 meters (25 feet). By hitting targets with several high-energy pulses, it is able to yield preliminary data for the scientists and engineers back at Earth to help them decide if a target warrants a closer investigation and, in rare cases, sampling and drilling activities.

ChemCam works through a process called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy. The laser hits a target with pulses to generate sparks, whose spectra provide information about which chemical elements are in the target. Successive laser shots are fired in sequence to gradually blast away thin layers of material. Each shot exposes a slightly deeper layer for examination by the ChemCam spectrometer.

Mars_novarockAs Curiosity fired deeper into the target rock – named “Nova” – it showed an increasing concentration of aluminum as the sequential laser blasts penetrated through the uninteresting dust on the rock’s surface. Silicon and sodium were also detected. As Sylvestre Maurice, ChemCam’s Deputy Principal Investigator at the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology, said in a statement:

This is so exciting! The ChemCam laser has fired more than 150,000 times on Mars, but this is the first time we see the plasma plume that is created… Each time the laser hits a target, the plasma light is caught and analyzed by ChemCam’s spectrometers. What the new images add is confirmation that the size and shape of the spark are what we anticipated under Martian conditions.

During it’s first year on Mars, Curiosity has already accomplished its primary objective of discovering a habitable zone on Mars that contains the minerals necessary to support microbial life billions of years ago when Mars was wetter and warmer. Currently, the rover is driving swiftly to the base of Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater, where it hopes to find more.

Mars_soilIn that same vein, according to new geological information obtained by Curiosty’s images and soil examinations, samples that were pulled out of a crater that is estimated to be some 3.7 billion years old contain more evidence that Mars was once much warmer and wetter. These findings were announced in a recent paper published in the online edition of Geology by University of Oregon geologist Gregory Retallack.

Unlike Earth, the Martian landscape is littered with loose rocks from impacts or layered by catastrophic floods. However, recent images from Curiosity from the Gale Crater reveal Earth-like soil profiles with cracked surfaces lined with sulfate, ellipsoidal hollows and concentrations of sulfate comparable with soils in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys and Chile’s Atacama Desert.

mars-180-degrees-panorama_croppedRetallack, the paper’s lone author, studied mineral and chemical data published by researchers closely tied with the Curiosity mission. As a professor of geological sciences and co-director of paleontology research at the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History, he internationally known as an expert on the recognition of paleosols – ancient fossilized soils contained in rocks.

As he explains in the paper:

The pictures were the first clue, but then all the data really nailed it. The key to this discovery has been the superb chemical and mineral analytical capability of the Curiosity Rover, which is an order of magnitude improvement over earlier generations of rovers. The new data show clear chemical weathering trends, and clay accumulation at the expense of the mineral olivine, as expected in soils on Earth. Phosphorus depletion within the profiles is especially tantalizing, because it attributed to microbial activity on Earth.

dryvalleysThe ancient soils do not prove that Mars once contained life, but they do add to growing evidence that an early, wetter and warmer Mars was more habitable than the planet has been in the past 3 billion years. Surface cracks in the deeply buried soils suggest typical soil clods. Vesicular hollows, or rounded holes, and sulfate concentrations, he said, are both features of desert soils on Earth.

Since Curiosity is currently on its way to Mount Sharp, future missions will be needed to fully explore these features. But as Retallack explained, the parallels with Earth are quite exciting:

None of these features is seen in younger surface soils of Mars. The exploration of Mars, like that of other planetary bodies, commonly turns up unexpected discoveries, but it is equally unexpected to discover such familiar ground.

The newly discovered soils indicate that more benign and habitable soil condition existed on Mars than previously expected. What’s more, their dating to 3.7 billion years ago places them within a transition period when the planet went from an early, benign water cycle to the acidic and arid Mars of today. This is especially important since major changes were taking place on Earth at around the same time.

Living-Mars.2Roughly 3.5 billion years ago, life on Earth is believed to have emerged and began diversifying. But some scientists have theorized that potential evidence that might indicate that life existed on Earth earlier may have been destroyed by tectonic activity, which did not occur on Mars. Basically, it may offer some credence to the theory that while flourished on Earth, it originated on Mars.

One person who supports this theory is Steven Benner of the Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology in Florida.  In the past, he has speculated that life is more likely to have originated on a soil planet like Mars than a water planet like Earth. In an email interview with Science Daily, Benner wrote that Retallack’s paper:

[S]hows not only soils that might be direct products of an early Martian life, but also the wet-dry cycles that many models require for the emergence of life.

So in addition to shedding light on the mysteries of Mars, Curiosity has also been pivotal in addressing some major questions which only increase the mystery of our own existence. Did life as we know it originate on Mars but flourish on Earth? Are there still some remnants of this microbial “Eden” being preserved deep within the soil and rocks? And could life exist there again some day?

All good questions that will no doubt keep robotic rovers, orbiters, landers, and even manned missions busy for many decades to come! In the meantime, check out the video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Curiosity’s spark-generating laser blast being caught on tape:


Sources:
universetoday.com, sciencedaily.com

News from Mars: Opportunity Still at Work

opportunityAfter ten years in service (when it wasn’t supposed to last longer than nine months), one would think that left for the Opportunity rover to do. And yet, Opportunity is still hard at work, thanks in no small part to its solar panels being their cleanest in years. In its latest research stint, NASA’s decade-old Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is inspecting a section of crater-rim ridgeline chosen as a priority target due to evidence of a water-related mineral.

Orbital observations of the site by another NASA spacecraft – the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – found a spectrum with the signature of aluminum bound to oxygen and hydrogen. Researchers regard that signature as a marker for a mineral called montmorillonite, which is in a class of clay minerals (called smectites) that forms when basalt is altered under wet and slightly acidic conditions. The exposure of it extends about 240 meters (800 feet) north to south on the western rim of Endeavour Crater.

Mars_Reconnaissance_OrbiterThe detection was made possible using the MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) combined with rover observations some 3 kms (2 miles) north on the crater’s western rim. Rocks exposed there contain evidence for an iron-bearing smectite – called nontronite – as well as for montmorillonite. That site yielded evidence for an ancient environment with water that would have been well-suited for use by microbes, evidence that could boost our understanding of what Mars looked like billions of years ago.

Opportunity reached the northern end of the montmorillonite-bearing exposure last month – a high point known as “Pillinger Point.” Opportunity’s international science team chose that informal name in honor of Colin Pillinger (1943-2014), the British principal investigator for the Beagle 2 project, which attempted to set a research lander on Mars a few weeks before Opportunity landed there in January of 2004.

Beagle 2Opportunity Principal Investigator Steve Squyres, of Cornell University, had this to say about Pillinger:

Colin and his team were trying to get to Mars at the same time that we were, and in some ways they faced even greater challenges than we did. Our team has always had enormous respect for the energy and enthusiasm with which Colin Pillinger undertook the Beagle 2 mission. He will be missed.

Though selected as a science destination, Pillinger Point also offers a scenic vista from atop the western rim of Endeavour Crater, which is about 22 kms (14 miles) in diameter. The picture below shows a section of a color shot taken by Opportunity’s panoramic camera (Pancam) upon arrival. A full-size view of this picture can be seen by going to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Mars Exploration Rovers webpage.

Pillinger_pointInitial measurements at this site with the element-identifying alpha particle X-ray spectrometer at the end of Opportunity’s arm indicate that bright-toned veins in the rock contain calcium sulfate. Scientists deduce this mineral was deposited as water moved through fractures on Endeavour’s rim. The rover found similar veins of calcium sulfate farther north along the rim while investigating there earlier last month.

As Opportunity investigated this site and other sites farther south along the rim, the rover had more energy than usual. This was due to the solar cells being in rare form, says Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

The solar panels have not been this clean since the first year of the mission. It’s amazing, when you consider that accumulation of dust on the solar panels was originally expected to cause the end of the mission in less than a year. Now it’s as if we’d been a ship out at sea for 10 years and just picked up new provisions at a port of call, topping off our supplies.

Both Opportunity and its rover twin, Spirit, benefited from sporadic dust-cleaning events in past years. However, on the ridge that Opportunity has been navigating since late 2013, winds have removed dust more steadily, day by day, than either rover has experienced elsewhere. The rover’s signs of aging – including a stiff shoulder joint and occasional losses of data – have not grown more troublesome in the past year, and no new symptoms have appeared.

mountsharp_galecraterJPL’s Jennifer Herman, power-subsystem engineer added:

It’s easy to forget that Opportunity is in the middle of a Martian winter right now. Because of the clean solar arrays, clear skies and favorable tilt, there is more energy for operations now than there was any time during the previous three Martian summers. Opportunity is now able to pull scientific all-nighters for three nights in a row — something she hasn’t had the energy to do in years.

During Opportunity’s first decade on Mars and the 2004-2010 career of Spirit, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Project yielded a range of findings about wet environmental conditions on ancient Mars – some very acidic, others milder and more conducive to supporting life. These findings have since been supplemented and confirmed by findings by the Curiosity Rover, which hopes to find plenty of clues as to the nature of possible life on Mars when it reaches Mount Sharp later this summer.

Source: sciencedaily.com, marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov

News from Mars: Updates on Panspermia Theory

PanspermiaFor centuries now, scientists have been toying with the idea that the origins of life may owe a great deal to space borne debris. And with ongoing research in the past few years, the link between Earth and Mars have become increasingly convincing. And a new bit of research out of the University of Hawaii has provided yet another piece of the puzzle by suggesting solar wind plays a major role.

Solar wind – the stream of charged particles consisting mostly of naked protons called H+ ions – permeate our Solar System because they are periodically ejected from the sun. The University paper shows that in an airless environment, typical space rocks will react with impacting protons to create tiny vesicles of water, thus allowing water and organic molecules to travel through space in tandem.

asteroid_earthInterestingly, the paper comes soon after NASA released evidence that Mars once sported a fair amount of water in the past, and that this water is sometimes found in unexpected places. The finding that water can be generated within dry space rocks, coupled with the fact that space rocks are known to deliver organic compounds to the surface of the Earth, is yet another indication that Earth and Mars might be linked.

Other recent papers have suggested that life’s important molecules arrived intact from Mars – a primitive version of RNA is one major proposed molecular stow-away – but these researchers claim only that “complex organic molecules” came from somewhere else in space. Complex organic compounds and liquid water, in conjunction, could theoretically provide the potential for non-living material to come alive.

Comet1One important aspect of this idea is that it focuses on small particles of material, rather than comets. Prior research has looked to such large bodies as the carriers of life and the drivers of the chemistry that created it, due to their energetic impacts. It’s been suggested that the earliest living things were cobbled together from high-energy molecules that couldn’t exist unless their synthesis was driven by massive astronomical impacts.

This more passive, dust-based explanation seems to fit well with the known history of the Earth, which predicts there was a high level of dust flux in the period before life began to flourish. In addition, the theory could help explain how in the predominantly shadowy areas of the Moon – another airless silicate body – unexpectedly high levels of water have been detected.

resolve_roverNASA has plans to launch RESOLVE (Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen & Lunar Volatile Extraction) in 2018 to collect and analyze ice samples and use them to look back into just that sort of astronomical history. Large quantities of water are thought to have arrived on the Moon via impacting comets, but this research suggests that at least some of it could have been created on the Moon itself.

All of this is of extreme importance to discovering how life began on Earth, mainly because scientists are still unsure of what makes the process complete. For instance, evolutionary theory can adequately explain how a bacterium becomes a protist that becomes an animal, but it cannot explain how a pile of non-living molecules ever became a living cell.

panspermia2Evidence seems to be mounting that, whether it was seeded with dust or fused into existence by huge asteroid impacts, life on Earth needed a kickstart in its earliest days. Interestingly, Earth’s atmosphere and the abundance of messy lifeforms on its surface could mean that Earth is the single worst place to search for such evidence.

The Moon or Mars, by contrast, are perfect environments for preserving evidence of the past given their dry and airless nature. And with ongoing research into both planets and our scientific knowledge of them expanding apace, whatever role they may have played in kickstarting life on Earth may finally be learned. This could come in handy if ever we need to do a little kickstarting of our own…

Source: extremetech.com

Life on Mars: What it Once Looked Like

mars_oxygenBillions of years ago when the Red Planet was young, it appears to have had a thick atmosphere that was warm enough to support oceans of liquid water, and perhaps even life. Thanks to past and ongoing research conducted by the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, NASA scientists are certain that Mars once boasted conditions that would have supported life.

To dramatize these discoveries, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has created a video representation of what the environment might have looked like billions of years ago. The artist’s concept opens with Mars appearing as a warm, wet place, and then transitioning to the climate that we know today.  As the atmosphere gradually disappears, it changes from the Earthlike blue to the dusty pink and tan hues of Mars today.

As the description reads on NASA Goddard’s Youtube page:

The animation shows how the surface of Mars might have appeared during this ancient clement period, beginning with a flyover of a Martian lake. The artist’s concept is based on evidence that Mars was once very different. Rapidly moving clouds suggest the passage of time, and the shift from a warm and wet to a cold and dry climate is shown as the animation progresses.

By the end, Mars has transformed to the acrid environment of 2013 – all “dusty pink and tan hues”. One day, NASA believes it may be possible to bring the environment back from this fate. Though its a mere theory at this point, terraforming could transform Mars back into a warm, wet, and life-sustaining planet once more. Enjoy the clip!


Source: fastcoexist, svs.gsfc.nasa.gov

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.

antarctic_expedition

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.

cloning

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 TĂŒbingen 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.