Bad News. Those Underground Lakes on Mars? They’re Probably Just Frozen Clay

Context map: NASA/Viking; THEMIS background: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University; MARSIS data: ESA/NASA/JPL/ASI/Univ. Rome; R. Orosei et al 2018

If you were planning an ice-fishing trip to the Martian south pole and its sub-surface lakes observed by radar in 2018, don’t pack your parka or ice auger just yet. In a research letter published earlier this month in Geophysical Research Letters by I.B. Smith et al., it seems that the Martian lakes may be nothing more smectite, that is, a kind of clay. Should the findings of the paper, titled A Solid Interpretation of Bright Radar Reflectors Under the Mars South Polar Ice (a solid title if you ask me), turn out to be correct, it would be a significant setback for those hoping to find life on the red planet. So why were these supposed lakes so critical for the search for life on Mars? How were they discovered in the first place? Why have our dreams of Martian ice-fishing turned to dust (or, more correctly, clay)?

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Long-Range Photo of Ingenuity Taken by Perseverance’s SuperCam Instrument


NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is a stunning achievement of engineering, design, and, well, ingenuity. The dual-rotor craft can be seen taking off and landing in this remarkable video, taken by the Mastcam-Z, an imager aboard the Perseverance Mars Rover. Mastcam-Z is a tremendous scientific instrument, but this article’s truly outstanding lead image was taken with Perseverance’s SuperCam instrument.

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This Is a Collapsed Pit on Mars, Not a Pimple

A HiRISE image of the southern polar region of Mars shows a sunken pit on the layered surface. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Mars has been in the news a lot lately, and for good reason. With the historic landing of the Perseverance Rover earlier in the year, and the successful flight of Ingenuity, the first-ever aircraft to fly in another atmosphere, earlier this morning (April 19, 2021), there’s no shortage of exciting stories of technical brilliance from the human-built wonders exploring the red planet. High above the plucky helicopter, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) surveys the Martian landscape on a grand scale. A brain-bending image released by High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a powerful camera aboard MRO, shows a sunken pit in the planet’s polar region. From the high-altitude perspective of the orbiter, it’s easy for the mind to warp the concave depression into a convex, acne-esque Martian polar zit!

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Seen From Space, Iceland’s new Volcano Lights up the Island at Night

You’ve probably seen stunning images of the night side of the Earth from space. Most people have seen the veritable constellations of city lights scattered familiarly across the continents, separated by wide oceans of darkness. You very well may have seen some stunning videos from the ISS showing the dynamic and mesmerizing ribbons of the polar aurorae and the even more frenetic flashes of nighttime lightning storms. If you’re a frequent reader of this site, you’ve likely even seen the effects of rolling blackouts during the catastrophic winter storms of February 2021 in Houston, as seen from space. Add another explosively extraordinary phenomenon to the list of nighttime space views; the March 2021 volcanic eruption in Iceland!.

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Oumuamua is Probably Very Similar to Pluto, Just From Another Star System

Artist's Concept of Oumuamua. Credit: William Hartmann

In 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) made history with the detection of a mysterious object called Oumuamua (Hawaiian for scout). Unlike countless other small objects that Pan-STARRS had detected before, Oumuamua seemed to originate from beyond the solar system. The first known interstellar object detected in the solar system, Oumuamua, with its odd trajectory, strange shape, and unusual acceleration, led to a flurry of activity in the astronomical community and an avalanche of wild claims of extraterrestrial space ships from various fringes of the media. A pair of papers published by Alan Jackson and Steven Desch of Arizona State University earlier this month reveals the best fit model for the identity of our extrasolar visitor. No, it isn’t aliens, but it’s pretty spectacular. Oumuamua seems to be a shard of a Pluto-like planet from another solar system!

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Do Supermassive Black Holes Come From Supermassive Stars?

Colors reveal complex interactions of oxygen abundance driving a supernova in a 55,000 solar mass star.

The gargantuan supermassive black holes at the center of seemingly every galaxy are among the most fascinating and extreme objects known to modern astronomy and cosmology. With masses well in excess of millions, and sometimes billions that of our Sun, it is nearly impossible to comprehend the extraordinary size of these celestial leviathans. One of the great mysteries of modern astrophysics is answering how such enormous objects got started. In a press release published on March 10th, researchers propose that the origins of supermassive black holes may lie with long since extinct, first-generation stars with masses far above the most massive stars in the modern Universe. Not only do they propose such giants existed, but also they suggest that they’ve found a way to detect a particular subset of these stars. This breakthrough is thanks to our old friend, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

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A Planet Lost Its Atmosphere, So Its Volcanoes Made It a New One

Credit: NASA, ESA, and R. Hurt (IPAC/Caltech)

A red-dwarf star called Gliese 1132 or GJ 1132 for short (astronomers and their fun nicknames!) smolders on some 41 light-years from the sun in the southern constellation Vela, just a few degrees away from the southern cross. In 2015, astronomers using the MEarth South telescope array at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile found an Earth-sized planet orbiting extremely close to the little red star. Known as GJ 1132b, the planet orbits in a blistering 1.6 days. Its original hydrogen and helium atmosphere is thought to have long since been blown away by the powerful stellar winds experienced by the planet due to its extreme proximity to its parent. New observations from the Hubble Space Telescope revealed a surprise from the speedy exoplanet; it seems to have re-formed an atmosphere!

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This Is What Rolling Blackouts Look Like From Space

Extreme winter weather hit Texas hard this February. An air mass from the arctic extended deep into the United States from Canada, with disastrous results for the ordinarily warm state. Along with snow and unusually low temperatures, the state’s capacity for power generation was significantly reduced by weather-related equipment failures. Images hosted by NASA’s Earth Observatory show the effect of controlled, rolling blackouts across the Greater Houston Area. 

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The Mars Helicopter is Online and Getting Ready to Fly

Artist's impression of Ingenuity on the surface of Mars with the Perseverance rover in the background. Credit NASA/JPL

Earth is the only planet in the solar system with aircraft capable of sustained flight. Suppose the ground-breaking Ingenuity helicopter, currently stowed aboard the similarly spectacular Mars Perseverance rover, accomplishes its planned mission. In that case, Mars will become the second planet to have a powered aircraft fly through its atmosphere. 

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Astronomers Confirm That Darksat is About Half as Bright as an Unpainted Starlink

Space-based internet service is poised to revolutionize the internet and bring high-speed connectivity to countless communities worldwide. Programs like SpaceX’s Starlink paint a picture of a bright future for the citizens of the world. Like many revolutionary technological advances, there is a dark side to Starlink. 

The constellation of hundreds (and eventually thousands) of satellites reflect light back to the Earth, impinging on the darkness of the skies for professional astronomers and stargazers alike. Astronomers report images and data being disrupted by bright streaks left from the satellites passing through their observational fields of view. One potential solution to this issue is applying a dark coating to the reflective antennae on the satellites’ ground-facing side. In January of 2020, SpaceX launched the experimental DarkSat to test the effectiveness of such a coating. Astronomers around the world observed the new satellite. In December of 2020, a team from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) released a paper in The Astrophysical Journal showing detailed measurements of the efficacy of DarkSat.

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