Tag Archives: mars

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

North America To Scale On Various Planets In Our Solar System

We’ve all seen images comparing the size of Earth with that of other planets in the solar system. The problem, John Brady of Astronomy Central realized, is that these images assume a grasp of Earth’s scale. So Brady decided to do something different and compare astronomical objects with pieces of the planet his readers may be familiar with

Suddenly, with the huge continent of North America dwarfed by Jupiter’s storms, the universe seems an even larger place. In the other direction, Mars looks so much more human-scaled.

John Brady/Astronomy Central. How the U.S. and Canada would measure up to Mars.

Brady has also reversed the process, showing what the solar system’s largest mountain, Olympus Mons, would look like if it replaced the Grand Canyon as Arizona’s prime tourist attraction. At 26 kilometers (85,000 ft) high, it would truly be a wonder, since the Earth’s greater gravity restricts mountains to a third of that size or less.

John Brady/Astronomy Central. If located appropriately, Olympus Mons would cover the whole state of Arizona.

Not everything makes us feel small. If you live in Liverpool, UK, you might be tempted to go for a bike ride around the area that Brady shows would be encompassed by a neutron star, or make an equivalent image for your own home with the help of satellite photos.

John Brady/Astronomy CentralNeturon stars really are the size of a city.
Brady told the Huffington Post, “I got the ‘North America on Jupiter’ image to scale by looking at size comparisons on NASA images of Earth compared to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. The Mars image with North America placed over it was done by knowing the diameter of the red planet, then finding the distance between two U.S. cities. I used New York and San Francisco.” 

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/universe-north-american-scale

Curiosity Rover in Good Health on Martian Surface


NASA’s huge Curiosity rover appears to have survived its harrowing Mars landing Sunday night in fine form, and it’s now gearing up for its two-year mission on the Red Planet’s surface.

News that the 1-ton Curiosity rover touched down safely inside Mars’ Gale Crater came in at 10:32 p.m. PDT Sunday (1:32 a.m. EDT and 0532 Monday), though the six-wheeled robot actually landed about 14 minutes earlier. (That’s how long it takes signals to travel from the Red Planet to Earth.)

The rover seems to be in good health after being lowered to the red dirt by a rocket-powered sky crane — a maneuver that had never been attempted before on another planet. And Curiosity has made the mental switch from entry, descent and landing mode to surface mode seamlessly, team members announced today.

“She is in surface nominal mode,” Curiosity mission manager Mike Watkins, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told reporters here at JPL today. “The surface mission of Curiosity has now begun.”

The rover is reporting no serious anomalies or glitches, Watkins added. Initial checks of the car-size vehicle’s 10 science instruments look good, though fully vetting their condition will take weeks or months.

Like Curiosity itself, the rover’s handlers are now transitioning to surface mode. The biggest activity on the docket for today — its first Martian day, or Sol 1 — is deploying Curiosity’s high-gain antenna. This operation should begin at around 6 p.m. PDT (9 p.m. EDT; 0100 GMT Tuesday), officials said.

“This allows us to talk directly to the Earth with enough gain that it can actually send data to us, and be more easily talked to by us,” Watkins said.

The antenna will take some of the communications pressure off NASA’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft, which have been relaying word from the rover back to Earth. Confirmation of last night’s successful touchdown, in fact, came via the venerable Odyssey, which has been orbiting Mars since 2001.

Curiosity will also take a five-hour reading today with its Radiation Assessment Detector instrument, or RAD, which gathered data for much of the rover’s eight-month space cruise.

“That’s not a checkout; that’s 100% data collection,” said Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger, a professor at Caltech in Pasadena.

On Sol 2, Curiosity will deploy its head-like mast and take some panoramic photos of its surroundings with its navigation cameras, Watkins said. The rover has already sent home a handful of pictures snapped by its hazard-avoidance cameras.

All of these activities are geared toward making sure Curiosity is fully functional and ready to rove. The robot’s main mission is to determine if the Gale area is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life. It will study the rocks and soil of Gale and Mount Sharp — the mysterious 3-mile-high mountain rising from the crater’s center — for at least the next two Earth years.

So while landing was a huge moment and a major accomplishment, Curiosity’s quest has only just begun.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface,” Grotzinger said.

Image courtesy of NASA

This article originally published at Space.com

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/08/06/curiosity-rover-in-good-health/