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

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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.

Also Read: NASA to Hold Announcement About New Discovery on Mars

“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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Chandra Observatory By NASA Back in Action

Scientists are currently performing analyses and tests to determine what options were available to recover the gyro to operational performance

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NASA's Chandra Observatory back in action. Pixabay

NASA Chandra X-Ray Observatory, observing the universe in high-energy light since 1999, is back in action after suffering a glitch due to the failure of the gyroscope and going into safe mode last week.

The cause of Chandra’s safe mode on October 10 has now been understood and the Operations team has successfully returned the spacecraft to its normal pointing mode, according to the US space agency.

“The safe mode was caused by a glitch in one of Chandra’s gyroscopes resulting in a 3-second period of bad data that, in turn, led the on-board computer to calculate an incorrect value for the spacecraft momentum. The erroneous momentum indication then triggered the safe mode,” NASA said in a statement late on Monday.

The team has completed plans to switch gyroscopes and place the gyroscope that experienced the glitch in reserve.

Once configured with a series of pre-tested flight software patches, the team will return Chandra to science operations which are expected to commence by the end of this week, NASA said.

On October 10, Chandra X-ray Observatory entered safe mode, in which the observatory is put into a safe configuration, critical hardware is swapped to back-up units, the spacecraft points so that the solar panels get maximum sunlight, and the mirrors point away from the Sun.

Chandra is 19 years old, which is well beyond the original design lifetime of five years. In 2001, NASA extended its lifetime to 10 years.

NASA
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which has been orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres since March 2015, is also nearly out of fuel and might run out as early as October. Flickr

The US space agency said that it was also continuing to work towards resuming science operations of the Hubble Space Telescope that on October 5, entered safe mode after one of the three gyroscopes (gyros) being used to point and steady the telescope failed.

Gyroscopes help spacecraft maintain proper orientation.

Scientists are currently performing analyses and tests to determine what options were available to recover the gyro to operational performance.

Till that time, science operations with Hubble have been suspended.

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Besides Chandra and Hubble, NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope is also almost out of fuel. Kepler has found about 70 per cent of all known alien worlds to date.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which has been orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres since March 2015, is also nearly out of fuel and might run out as early as October.

The space agency’s Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity too have faced issues of late. (IANS)