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Curiosity Rover Finds Ancient ‘Building Blocks for Life’ on Mars

NASA finds curious new clues to life on Mars

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Mars
Red Planet: Mars to Come Closest to Earth in 15 Years Next Month. Pixabay

NASA’s Curiosity rover has discovered “tough” organic molecules in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface of Mars — a finding that suggests the planet could have supported ancient life.

It has also found seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere, a discovery that has relation to the search for current life on the Red Planet.

“With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington on Thursday.

“I’m confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet,” Zurbuchen said.

While not necessarily evidence of life itself, these findings, detailed in two papers in the journal Science, are a good sign for future missions exploring the planet’s surface and subsurface.

Organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen, and also may include oxygen, nitrogen and other elements.

While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life.

“Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules,” said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who is lead author of one of the two new Science papers.

NASA
NASA. Pixabay

“Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes,” Eigenbrode said.

In the second paper, scientists described the discovery of seasonal variations in methane in the Martian atmosphere over the course of nearly three Mars years, which is almost six Earth years.

This variation was detected by Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite.

Water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists cannot rule out the possibility of biological origins.

Methane previously had been detected in Mars’ atmosphere in large, unpredictable plumes.

This new result shows that low levels of methane within Gale Crater repeatedly peak in warm, summer months and drop in the winter every year.

“This is the first time we have seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it,” said Chris Webster of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, lead author of the second paper.

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“This is all possible because of Curiosity’s longevity. The long duration has allowed us to see the patterns in this seasonal ‘breathing,” Webster added.

Launched in 2011, Curiosity was designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes.

Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water — an essential ingredient for life as we know it — to pool at the surface.

Data from Curiosity reveal that billions of years ago, a water lake inside Gale Crater held all the ingredients necessary for life, including chemical building blocks and energy sources. (IANS)

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Moon Mission: NASA Seeking Healthy US Citizens For 8-Month Isolation

NASA is looking for candidates between the ages of 30 and 55

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NASA
NASA is looking for healthy individuals for their study on isolation for 8 months. Pixabay

NASA is seeking US citizens for an eight-month study on social isolation in preparation for missions to Mars and the moon.

The international space agency is preparing for its next spaceflight simulation study and is seeking healthy participants to live together with a small crew in isolation for eight months in Moscow, Russia.

Participants will be staying in a lab located in Moscow, and they will experience environmental aspects similar to those astronauts are expected to experience on future missions to Mars that will have crew members from different nations.

NASA is looking for highly motivated and healthy individuals between the ages of 30 and 55 who are fluent in both English and Russian. They must also have an MS., PhD, MD. or have completed military officer training.

The space agency will consider other participants with a bachelor’s degree and other qualifications such as military or professional experience.

They will study the psychological and physiological effects astronauts are likely to face as a result of isolation on long missions.

astronaut NASA
NASA is also looking for people who are fluent in both English and Russian. Pixabay

According to NASA, participants will experience environmental aspects similar to those astronauts are expected to experience on future missions to Mars.

A small international crew will live together in isolation for eight months conducting scientific research, using virtual reality and performing robotic operations among a number of other tasks during the lunar mission.

The research is being done to study the effects of isolation and confinement as participants work to complete simulated space missions.

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Results from ground-based missions like this help NASA prepare for the real-life challenges of space exploration and provide important scientific data to solve some of these problems and to develop countermeasures.

Participants will be compensated, and there are varying levels of pay depending on whether you’re associated with NASA.

This study builds on a four-month study conducted in 2019. The SIRIUS-19 analog mission had six participants — two US citizens and four Russians — isolated in a metal habitat that acted as their spacecraft, lunar lander and home. (IANS)

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Scientists to Probe Jupiter’s Violent Storms, Lightning Strikes

Scientists from various organisations probe Jupiter's violent Storms and lightning strikes

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Jupiter
Scientists to probe Jupiter's violent storms and lightning strikes. Pixabay

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the ground-based Gemini Observatory in Hawaii have teamed up with the Juno spacecraft to probe the mightiest storms on the giant planet Jupiter.

The images, part of a multi-year joint programme, revealed that lightning strikes, and some of the largest storm systems that create them, are formed in and around large convective cells over deep clouds of water ice and liquid.

The new observations also confirm that dark spots in the famous Great Red Spot are actually gaps in the cloud cover and not due to cloud colour variations.

Three years of imaging observations using the international Gemini Observatory have probed deep into Jupiter’s cloud tops. The ultra-sharp Gemini infrared images complement optical and ultraviolet observations by Hubble and radio observations by the Juno spacecraft to reveal new secrets about the giant planet.

“The Gemini data were critical because they allowed us to probe deeply into Jupiter’s clouds on a regular schedule,” said Michael Wong of University of California, Berkeley.

Jupiter
Scientists to probe Jupiter’s violent storms and lightning strikes. Pixabay

“We used a very powerful technique called lucky imaging,” added Wong.

With lucky imaging, a large number of very short exposure images are obtained and only the sharpest images, when the Earth’s atmosphere is briefly stable, are used. The result in this case is some of the sharpest infrared images of Jupiter ever obtained from the ground.

According to Wong, “These images rival the view from space.”

Gemini North’s Near Infrared Imager (NIRI) allows astronomers to peer deep into Jupiter’s mighty storms, since the longer wavelength infrared light can pass through the thin haze but is obscured by thicker clouds high in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

This creates a “jack-o-lantern”-like effect in the images where the warm, deep layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere glow through gaps in the planet’s thick cloud cover.

Jupiter
Jupiter’s violent storms and lightning strikes to be probed by scientist. Pixabbay

The detailed, multiwavelength imaging of Jupiter by Geminiand Hubble has, over the past three years, proven crucial to contextualizing the observations by the Juno orbiter, and to understanding Jupiter’s wind patterns, atmospheric waves, and cyclones.

The two telescopes, together with Juno, can observe Jupiter’s atmosphere as a system of winds, gases, heat, and weather phenomena, providing coverage and insight not unlike the network of weather satellites meteorologists use to observe Earth.

Because the Hubble and Gemini observations are so important for interpreting Juno data, Wong and his colleagues are making all of the processed data easily accessible to other researchers through the Mikulski Archives for Space Telescopes (MAST) at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

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The results were published in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series. (IANS)

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NASA Selects SpaceX, Blue Origin For its Artemis Space Program

NASA said it is returning to the Moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits, and inspiration for a new generation

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NASA
NASA is on track for sustainable human exploration of the Moon for the first time in history. Pixabay

The US space agency NASA on Thursday announced it has selected Elon Musk-run SpaceX, Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin and Dynetics (a Leidos company) to design and develop human landing systems (HLS) for the agency’s Artemis programme, one of which will land the first woman and next man on the surface of the Moon by 2024.

The total combined value for all awarded contracts is $967 million for the 10-month base period. “With these contract awards, America is moving forward with the final step needed to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024, including the incredible moment when we will see the first woman set foot on the lunar surface,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

NASA is on track for sustainable human exploration of the Moon for the first time in history.
“This is the first time since the Apollo era that NASA has direct funding for a human landing system, and now we have companies on contract to do the work for the Artemis programme,” he said in a statement.

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Blue Origin is developing the Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV) – a three-stage lander to be launched on its own New Glenn Rocket System and ULA Vulcan launch system. SpaceX is developing the Starship – a fully integrated lander that will use the SpaceX Super Heavy rocket.

Dynetics (a Leidos company) from Huntsville, Alabama, is working on the Dynetics Human Landing System (DHLS) – a single structure providing the ascent and descent capabilities that will launch on the ULA Vulcan launch system. Fifty years ago, NASA’s Apollo Programme proved it is possible to land humans on the Moon and return them safely to Earth.

“We are on our way. With these awards, we begin an exciting partnership with the best of industry to accomplish the nation’s goals. We have much work ahead, especially over these next critical 10 months. I have high confidence that working with these teammates, we will succeed,” informed Douglas Loverro, NASA’s associate administrator for Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington.

SpaceX
The US space agency on Thursday announced it has selected Elon Musk-run SpaceX, Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin and Dynetics (a Leidos company) to design and develop human landing systems (HLS) for the agency’s Artemis programme, one of which will land the first woman and next man on the surface of the Moon by 2024. Wikimedia Commons

NASA’s commercial partners will refine their lander concepts through the contract base period ending in February 2021. During that time, the agency will evaluate which of the contractors will perform initial demonstration missions.

Charged with returning to the Moon in the next four years, NASA’s Artemis programme will reveal new knowledge about the Moon, Earth, and our origins in the solar system. The human landing system is a vital part of NASA’s deep space exploration plans, along with the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, Orion spacecraft, and Gateway.

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NASA said it is returning to the Moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits, and inspiration for a new generation. (IANS)