Tag Archives: mars

Atomic Oxygen Has Been Detected In Mars’ Atmosphere

As far as we know, were the only habitable planet in the Solar System. We have yet to discover life elsewhere, but Mars even today is a pretty good bet. Its got salty, liquid water on its surface, and although its atmosphere is thin and insubstantial, microbial life could lurk within the sediments, where its shielded from incoming solar radiation.

However, as researchers are continuously discovering, Mars was likely once far more habitable. Recent data from NASAs Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission revealed that its once-thick atmosphere, held in place by a wavering magnetosphere, was stripped away by major solar storms. Now, another NASA mission called SOFIA the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy has found that there are traces of atomic oxygen still lingering in the gaseous envelope thatsurrounds the Red Planet.

Atomic oxygen was first detected in the Martian atmosphere 40 years ago by the Viking and Mariner missions, but it hasnt been picked up since. Atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is notoriously difficult to measure,said Pamela Marcum, SOFIA project scientist, in a statement.

SOFIA, a flying observatory attached to a Boeing 747SP, looks at the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Its designed to peer into the hearts of stars, the complex clouds of planetary nebulae, and the atmospheres of planets both outside the Solar System and those right next door to us.

To observe the far-infrared wavelengths needed to detectatomic oxygen, researchers must be above the majority of Earth’s atmosphere and use highly sensitive instruments, in this case a spectrometer, Marcum added. SOFIA provides both capabilities.

The abundance of atomic oxygen in Mars atmosphere peaks between 70 and 120 kilometers (44 to 75 miles). Rezac et al./Astronomy & Astrophysics

Flying between 11.3 and 13.7 kilometers (37,000 and45,000 feet) above ground, specialized detectors were able to spy atomic oxygen in the mesosphere (the upper atmosphere) of Mars, confirming it as not just an erroneous detection of Earths far more abundant atmospheric oxygen. The data from SOFIA was published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Although this atomic oxygen is a far cry from the amount of molecular, breathable oxygen (O2) seen on a planet covered in photosynthesizing bacteria and plants like ours, its discovery is nonetheless important: It is the key element controlling several atmospheric processes, including energy and mass flow into and out of the planet; in addition, it controls how much heat is lost from Mars carbon dioxide.

Ultimately, its presence influences how fast the atmosphere is disappearing into space. Understanding the atomic oxygen segment of the Martian atmosphere will allow researchers to gain a better understanding of why it was all but obliterated over the last few billions of years.

The researchers actually found half as much oxygen as they expected to find, but they put this down to natural variations in the Martian atmosphere. Its not yet clear where this atomic oxygen originated from, but seeing as its the third most abundant element in the universe, its discovery wasnt entirely surprising.

It is worth pointing out that the ancient atmosphere of Mars probably did contain far more oxygen than it currently does. Whether it was produced by chemical reactions in the atmosphere, or primitive life at the surface, is currently unknown.

Photo Gallery

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/atomic-oxygen-has-been-detected-mars-atmosphere

NO, Mars Will NOT Appear As Large As The Full Moon In The Night Sky

Certain wonderful events come just once a year, like birthdays, Thanksgiving, anniversaries, and back-to-school sales for office supplies. Sadly, a new annual tradition has emerged: claiming that Mars will appear to be the same size as the full moon at the end of August. 

Chances are, you’ve seen something like this floating around:

(Over 626,000 shares?! I’m starting to think people are doing this just to fuck with me. Mission accomplished. Now stop it.)

So where did this nonsense originate? The closest approach for Mars and Earth in 2003 was the closest it been in nearly 60,000 years and was the best time to view the red planet through a strong telescope. Phil Plait explained last year:

“On that date, through a telescope that magnifies an image 75x, Mars would look as big as the Moon does to the naked eye. … But this being the Internet, that got all mished and mashed up, and somehow became this idea that if you went outside Mars would look huge in the sky, looming over the world like something out of an H. G. Wells novel.”

While it is reasonable that someone could make a silly mistake, it is entirely unclear how it could have persisted this long. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter why. The only important thing to remember is that Mars will never appear as large as the full moon in the night sky. Not in 2014; not in 2287. Not ever.

The respective orbits of Mars and Earth make their closest approach with one another once every 26 months. The most recent event was this past April, when it just happened to coincide with a total lunar eclipse. This year, that approach left a distance of 92 million kilometers (57.2 million miles) between the planets, and while Mars could be seen with the naked eye, it was still just a small smudge of red light.

August 27 also happens to fall two days after the new moon, so the moon will be in its waxing crescent phase; certainly not full. These dark sky conditions will make it a great time to grab a blanket and a telescope to check out the stars, but don’t be fooled into thinking that Mars will be an extraordinary feature. Astronomy is plenty cool all on its own; these gimmicks just undermine that. (There’s also a lot to be said for such rampant serial sharing without any fact checking. Slate’s Scott Huler hits the nail on the head with that topic.)

Just for kicks, how close would Mars need to be to appear as large as the full moon in the night sky? About 780,000 kilometers (485,000 miles), which is approximately 118 times closer than it will ever be. Heck, the Moon’s average distance is about 363,100 kilometers (225,600 miles), so we’d all be in pretty big trouble if Mars got that close. 

[Hat tip: EarthSky.org, Phil Plait]

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/no-mars-will-not-appear-large-full-moon-night-sky

Fungi and Lichens Just Survived 18 Months On The Outside Of The ISS – Which Means They Might Be Able To Survive On Mars Too

Life is a fickle thing, and to understand the potential for life beyond Earthwe continue to test how microorganisms deal with extreme conditions. The latest experiment looked at how fungi and lichens would fare on the Red Planet.

European scientists collected fungi from Antarctica, and lichens from the Sierra de Gredos (Spain) and the Alps (Austria), and theysent them tothe International Space Station (ISS) to experienceconditions similar to Mars. After 18 months, the team analyzed the samplesand discovered that more than 60 percentof the cells were intact and with stable DNA. The results indicate that the harsh conditions of Marsmight not bean insurmountable obstacle, andtheseextremophilespecies might survive.

The Antarctic fungi were collected in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, an area that is considered to be the most Martian-like environment on Earth, due to its dryness and sub-zero temperatures. Along with the European lichenspecies, the fungi were placed in EXPOSE-E,an experiment platform developed by ESA that was attached to the outside of the ISS.

The microorganisms were in a Mars-like atmosphere, made almost entirely of carbon dioxide,and at a low pressure (0.01 atmospheres). Using optical filters, thesamples were subjected to the same ultraviolet radiation they would experience on Mars.

“The most relevant outcome was that more than 60 percentof the cells of the endolithic communities studied remained intact after ‘exposure to Mars’, or rather, the stability of their cellular DNA was still high,” said a co-researcher on the project,Rosa de la Torre Noetzelfrom Spain’s National Institute of Aerospace Technology, in astatement

“The results help to assess the survival ability and long-term stability of microorganisms and bioindicators on the surface of Mars, information which becomes fundamental and relevant for future experiments centred around the search for life on the Red Planet,” she added.

The findings, published in the journal Astrobiology, might seem incontrast to the lack of bacteria in the Antarctic permafrostreported by IFLSciencelast week, butboth studiestell us something profound about life in the universe. Yes, there are evolved life forms that could survive in extreme extraterrestrial environments, but theres a significant difference between surviving and thriving.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/fungi-and-lichens-could-survive-mars

Puzzling Rocks Found On Mars

Three and a half billion years ago Mars was a completely different place. Water was flowing, the atmosphere was thicker, and maybe some basic forms of life had evolved. Curiositys latest findings provide more evidence for flowing water, but create new questions about the Red Planet.

The rocks analyzed by Curiosity in the last seven months have much higher concentrations of silica than any other terrain visited by the rover since its arrival in 2012. Silica, which is a chemical made of silicon and oxygen, makes up 90 percent of the composition of some of those rocks.

“These high-silica compositions are a puzzle. You can boost the concentration of silica either by leaching away other ingredients while leaving the silica behind, or by bringing in silica from somewhere else,” said Albert Yen, a Curiosity science team member, in a statement. “Either of those processes involve water. If we can determine which happened, we’ll learn more about other conditions in those ancient wet environments.”

If the originof the silica is sedimentary, water must have flowed abundantly on Mars. The other alternative is that it formed through leaching,atype of rock weathering due to acidic water. While many minerals in rocks would dissolve, silica would not be affected by the acidic water.NASAs rover Spirit previously discovered traces of sulfuric and hydrochloric acidity, which could favour the leaching hypothesis,but the team is still considering both scenarios until more evidence is found.

Another puzzling discovery is the presence of tridymite, a very rare silica (at least on Earth) formed by volcanoes. Researchers are curious about a potential magmatic past on Mars, but they are also testing if there are other ways for this mineral to form.

Curiosity is currently climbing Mount Sharp, a feature within Gale crater where it landed 40 months ago. Mount Sharp formed because surrounded terraineroded away, so as Curiosity climbs higher and higher, it encounters younger and younger terrain. Thiswill give us an indication of how Mars went from awet to arid environment.

“What we’re seeing on Mount Sharp is dramatically different from what we saw in the first two years of the mission,” said Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada.

“There’s so much variability within relatively short distances. The silica is one indicator of how the chemistry changed. It’s such a multifaceted and curious discovery, we’re going to take a while figuring it out.”

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/puzzling-rocks-found-mars

5 Craters That Look Like Other Things


Could We Colonize Mars?

Sending humans to Mars is something that many are hopeful will happen in the next few decades, possibly by the 2040s,according to NASA. But what chance do we have of actually living on Mars permanently one day?

In the second episode of the “Further” series(the first one was on aliens), former astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman discusses the possibility of us one day colonizing Mars. If humanity can, some day, establish a presence on more than one planet, weve really increased our chances of longterm survival, he says.

Early Martian explorers might face a unique psychological test in being so far from Earth, according to Hoffman. But perhaps they will have a unique goal to turn Mars back into the habitable environment it was once thought to be, with a thick atmosphere and liquid water on the surface, via a process known as terraforming.

The video imagines a future Martian explorer using a large facility to heat the Martian core, giving it back the atmosphere we know was lost. Hoffman notes, though, that this is farbeyond the realms of what is possible with current technologies.

Thats beyond anything that we can imagine today, he said. But I never like to say never because what our technologies will be like a thousand years in the future, I cant even imagine.

Check out the video below.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/can-we-colonize-mars

Mysterious Ovoid Structure in Martian Meteorite Looks Like A Cell

The Nakhla meteorite originated from Mars and fell to Earth in Egypt in 1911. It has been studied extensively over the years, and is one of the first indicators humans had about past water and mineral content on Mars. A biomorphic ovoid structure was recently discovered, which strongly resembles some sort of microorganism. Scientists studying the formation ultimately determined it was caused by geological forces and was not formed by a living organism. However, the analyses did reveal an incredible amount of information regarding the composition of Mars and its potential habitability. The research was led by Elias Chatzitheodoridis of National Technical University of Athens and the paper was published in an open access format in the journal Astrobiology

It was not immediately clear how the structure formed. Several hypotheses were kicked around, including that it was formed by ancient Martian microorganisms. In order to investigate the structure’s origins, the meteorite was subjected to a barrage of tests including x-ray analyses, mass spectrometry, electron microscopy, and atomic force microscope topographic mapping.

The researchers are confident that the structure was indigenous to the sample, and not the result of any contamination once it got to Earth. The ovoid structure itself is about 80 microns long, 60 microns wide. The average E. coli bacterium is about 2 microns long, so if prokaryotes were involved, it would have taken an entire colony to create a space that large. Eukaryotic microorganisms can easily be as large as the structure. However, they ultimately decided that it wasn’t likely that they were looking at the imprint of alien life.

Instead, the data revealed that the structure was likely formed due to geological processes. It appears that the rock from which the meteorite originated had been struck by another object. The shock produced heat and pressure which melted the permafrost and mixed fluids and minerals on and below the surface. It looks most likely that vaporized liquid formed a bubble, which was then filled with the organic material.

“This study illustrates the importance of correlating different types of datasets when attempting to discern whether something in rock is a biosignature indicative of life,” Astrobiology’s Editor-Sherry L. Cady said in a press release. “Though the authors couldn’t prove definitively that the object of focus was evidence of life, their research strategy revealed a significant amount of information about the potential for life to inhabit the subsurface of Mars.”

While they didn’t find direct evidence of microbial life, they also didn’t find anything that completely ruled it out either. They discovered minerals that are essential for life, which backs up findings from the Curiosity rover that Mars could have been habitable in the past. The paper states that “although compelling evidence for a biotic origin is lacking, it is evident that the Martian subsurface contains niche environments where life could develop.”

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/mysterious-ovoid-structure-martian-meteorite-looks-cell

Super-Realistic Simulator Lands NASA’s Curiosity Rover on Mars


As NASA’s Curiosity rover gets closer to its early Monday morning landing on Mars, the agency has released a spectacular simulator that will take you through every detail of the complicated landing procedure.

If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft, officially called the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), will land on the Red Planet at 1:30 A.M. Eastern Time on August 5.

The remarkable web-based interactive animation lets you see precisely where in space the 1-ton, $2.5 billion Mars rover is located at this moment, or using Preview Mode, you can jump forward and backward in time, speeding up events so you can see each aspect of the flight and landing. That includes the last step, which lowers the unusually heavy rover using an incredible “sky crane.”

During the “seven minutes of terror,” NASA‘s way of explaining the Rube-Goldbergian process of landing the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars, it won’t be possible to watch the Mars landing live because of the 14-minute communications delay between Mars and Earth. But an interactive animation of the landing will be viewable in real time in this simulator as it happens early Monday morning.

In the meantime, we’ve been having lots of fun playing with this simulator, going forward and backward in time, dragging the mouse to change camera angles, and even looking back at a tiny Earth, way off in the distance.

Try it yourself — and pay close attention to those “seven minutes of terror,” the most complicated landing sequence ever attempted. While you’re at it, keep your fingers crossed at 1:30 A.M. Eastern time on Monday morning, because key NASA officials are saying there’s a lot riding on this landing. Doug McQuiston, director of NASA’s Mars exploration program calls it “the most significant event in the history of planetary exploration.”

Lead scientist for the mission, John Grotzinger, told Space.com, “I think if we are fatal on landing, that will have a very negative influence.” He added, “It’s going to force people to look back and ask if it’s possible to achieve these very complex, more demanding missions from a technological perspective. How can you talk about sample-return if you can’t do MSL [Mars Science Laboratory] first?”

Good luck, NASA. Do you think the spacecraft will land on Mars successfully?

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/08/04/simulator-mars-curiosity-rover/

Curiosity Rover Makes First Foursquare Check-in on Mars


Curiosity is NASA’s most digitally savvy rover yet. She tweets regularly, posts her pictures and now she is the first Foursquare user to ever check in on Mars.

Curiosity’s first check-in was today at the Gale Crater, where she made her first landing on the night of Aug. 5. Located on the equator of Mars, the Gale Crater is home to the 3-mile high Mount Sharp and is Curiosity’s primary target as it holds billions of years of Martian history.

Curiosity will continue to check in and share updates throughout her 23-month expedition.

“Like any great trip, you want to share with your friends back home, so that is why the rover is sharing check-ins and tips from her amazing trip,” says Stephanie L. Smith, who is part of the three-woman team that runs Curiosity’s social media.

Since Curiosity is the first to post from the Red Planet, she will regularly give travel tips for future space tourists.

“Mars is cold, dry and rocky. Extra moisturizer and sturdy shoes would be a good idea, plus oxygen for those of you who breathe,” she posted along with a snapshot of the desert-like landscape.

Curiosity’s next check-in will be from Rocknest, another point within the Gale Crater where the rover will be parked for the next two weeks to conduct various experiments.

“We’ll start getting to more specific locations within the crater,” says Veronica McGregor, social media manager at NASA. “We may not do daily check-ins for each drive, but we will be able to do check-ins and tips for locations after we name them.”

Curiosity’s Foursquare tips will be a mix of science and humor. “We’re having fun with these tips,” says NASA social media specialist Courtney O’Connor. “We have to consider things like atmosphere, temperature and things we don’t normally think about on Earth. We have to put ourselves into her point of view. You have to get into character.”

So far, the rover has checked in two times today. She only has one more check-in until she becomes mayor of Gale Crater — an honor that, McGregor says, is well-deserved.

“If anyone should be mayor, it’s that rover.”

Bonus: Mars Curiosity’s First Tracks

Volcanic Eruptions On Mars Used To Explode Through Ancient Ice Sheets

Volcanoes are many things: spectacular, terrifying, gargantuan, and enigmatic. They free us from ice ages, destroy civilizations and build new islands from the sea as we watch. They captivateboth scientists and non-scientists alike, so whenever a new one is found, its always a cause for celebration.

These volcanoes arent on Earth this time around, however.They can be found on a peculiar southern region of our faded crimson neighbor, Mars. As reported by NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spotted some unusually textured surfaces inSisyphi Montes, an area packed with flat-topped mountains.

The characteristic signatures revealed the presence of a collection of minerals zeolites, sulfates, and iron oxides which can only collectively form from one type of volcanic eruption, one that occurred through a layer of ice. As ice is no longer present in the region, this means that the MRO has uncovered evidence of an ancient subglacial eruption, probably from one of those suspicious, volcano-like mountains in the region.

Rocks tell stories. Studying the rocks can show how the volcano formed or how it was changed over time, Sheridan Ackiss, a graduate student at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, and one of the researchers who discovered the long-lost volcanic eruption, said in a statement.

Curious mineral patches have been identified in a region of Mars long-suspected of having volcanic activity. NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL/ASU

Volcanic activity on Mars is thought to be long-dead, but the epic volcanic monuments left behind within the geology of the Red Planet betray to us its much more violent past. A recent study revealed how one epic volcanic effusion billions of years ago actually tipped the entire planet over by 20. Olympus Mons once squeezed out floods of lava across the Martian landscape; if it grew any larger, it would be so heavy that it would sink into the crust.

The mineral patches found in the Sisyphi Montes region, which extends from 55 to 75 south, can only be formed when lava mixes somewhat explosively with ice. Today, the ice-capped south pole is around 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) away from this region, which means that ice sheets were once present in this region.

We have these types of subglacial volcanoes on Earth too: The Eyjafjallajkulleruption in Iceland in 2010 is a good example of this, where the meeting of hot magma and cold ice generated prolonged, huge ash-filled plumes of steam and lava blebs.

These volcanoes either erupt under or onto a volume of ice. Whereas the latter situation tends to be calm and uneventful, the former is almost always more explosive. Ice caps above magma chambers increase the pressure difference between the magma and the outside world, and a higher pressure gradient always means a more explosive eruption.

What happens when lava erupts onto ice. Science Channel via YouTube

Also, the searing heat of the magma encountering the far colder ice initiates something called a molten fuel coolant reaction (MFCI); the greater the temperature difference, the more energetically the heat from the magma is transferred to the ice, and the more explosive the eruption will ultimately be.

Curiously, magma just erupting onto ice never produces an explosion. Volcanologists think that the ice or water needs to be wrapped up inside the magma, where it will rapidly heat and expand into a gas under additional pressure, before it explodes. This mechanism is likely behind the production of these mineral patches just discovered on Mars.

Photo Gallery

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/volcanic-eruptions-mars-used-explode-through-ancient-ice-sheets