Spirit at the Edge of Bonneville Crater

Image credit: NASA/JPL
NASA’s Spirit has begun looking down into a crater it has been approaching for several weeks, providing a view of what’s below the surrounding surface.

Spirit has also been looking up, seeing stars and the first observation of Earth from the surface of another planet. Its twin, Opportunity, has shown scientists a “mother lode” of hematite now considered a target for close-up investigation.

“It’s been an extremely exciting and productive week for both of the rovers,” said Spirit Mission Manager Jennifer Trosper at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dr. Chris Leger, a rover driver at JPL, said, “The terrain has been getting trickier and trickier as we’ve gotten close to the crater. The slopes have been getting steeper and we have more rocks.” Spirit has now traveled a total of 335 meters (1,099 feet).

Spirit’s new position on the rim of the crater nicknamed “Bonneville” offers a vista in all directions, including the crater interior. The distance to the opposite rim is about the length of two football fields, nearly 10 times the diameter of Opportunity’s landing-site crater halfway around the planet from Spirit.

Initial images from Spirit’s navigation camera do not reveal any obvious layers in “Bonneville’s” inner wall, but they do show tantalizing clues of rock features high on the far side, science-team member Dr. Matt Golombek of JPL said at a news briefing today. “This place where we’ve just arrived has opened up, and it’s going to take us a few days to get our arms around it.?

Scientists anticipate soon learning more about the crater from Spirit’s higher-resolution panoramic camera and the miniature thermal emission spectrometer, both of which can identify minerals from a distance. They will use that information for deciding whether to send Spirit down into the crater.

From the crater rim and during martian nighttime earlier today, Spirit took pictures of stars, including a portion of the constellation Orion. Shortly before dawn four martian days earlier, it photographed Earth as a speck of light in the morning twilight. The tests of rover capabilities for astronomical observations will be used in planning possible studies of Mars’ atmospheric characteristics at night. Those studies might include estimating the amounts of dust and ice particles in the atmosphere from their effects on starlight, said Dr. Mark Lemmon, a science team member from Texas A&M University, College Station.

Opportunity has been looking up, too. It has photographed Mars’ larger moon, Phobos, passing in front of the Sun twice in the past week, and Mars’ smaller moon, Deimos, doing so once.

Opportunity’s miniature thermal emission spectrometer has taken upward-looking readings of the atmospheric temperature at the same time as a similar instrument, the thermal emission spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor orbiter, took downward-pointed readings while passing overhead. “They were actually looking directly along the same path,” said science team member Dr. Michael Wolff of the Martinez, Ga., branch of the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo. The combined readings give the first full temperature profile from the top of Mars’ atmosphere to the surface.?

When pointed at the ground, Opportunity’s miniature thermal emission spectrometer has checked the abundance of hematite in all directions from the rover’s location inside its landing-site crater. This mineral, in its coarse-grained form, usually forms in a wet environment. Detection of hematite from orbit was the prime factor in selection of the Meridiani Planum region for Opportunity’s landing site.

“The plains outside our crater are covered with hematite,” said Dr. Phil Christensen of Arizona State University, Tempe, lead scientist for the instrument. “The rock outcrop we’ve been studying has some hematite. Parts of the floor of the crater, interestingly enough, have virtually none.” The pattern fits a theory that the crater was dug by an impact that punched through a hematite-rich surface layer, he said. One goal for Opportunity’s future work is to learn more about that surface layer to get more clues about the wet past environment indicated by sulfate minerals identified last week in the crater’s outcrop.

Christensen said that before Opportunity drives out of the crater in about 10 days, scientists plan to investigate one area on the inner slope of the crater that he called “the mother lode of hematite.”

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover project for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. Images and additional information about the project are available from JPL at http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov and from Cornell University at http://athena.cornell.edu.

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

Lawmakers Express Concerns Over Bush Initiative

Image credit: NASA
Expert witnesses before the House Science Committee today endorsed the broad outlines of the President’s space exploration initiative, but called for changes and refinements in some of its elements.

Specifically, several witnesses criticized the reductions proposed in NASA’s space science programs to pay for the initiative, and they urged NASA to come up with new ways to get fresh ideas into the program, including from entrepreneurs and the public. The witnesses also agreed that understanding and counteracting the effects of radiation in space on human physiology is one of the most serious hurdles to sustained human activity in space. Two of the witnesses argued that the moon might not be a sensible interim goal for the exploration initiative, but others endorsed the approach outlined in the President’s plan – first the space station, then the moon and then Mars.

Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Ranking Democrat Bart Gordon (D-TN) both emphasized their continuing concerns with the potential costs.

“I think all I need to say about my views this morning is to reiterate that I remain undecided about whether and how to undertake the exploration program. I would add that, as the outlines of the likely fiscal 2005 budget become clearer, my questions about the initiative only become more pressing,” said Boehlert.

Boehlert added that the fiscal 2005 NASA budget proposal needed to be reviewed in the context of the entire federal science budget. “My strong feeling, and I think it’s shared by others on this Committee, is that a society unwilling to invest in science and technology is a society willing to write its own economic obituary. So we’re looking in the broad category of science?and then NASA is a subset of that, and a subset of our investment in NASA is human versus unmanned. And so we’re trying to get answers to some very specific questions involving cost and risk – answers that are not easy to come up with.”

Gordon stated, “I support the goal of exploring our solar system. However, until I am convinced that the President’s plan to achieve that goal is credible and responsible, I am not prepared to give that plan my support.”

Witnesses had differing views on the costs. Dr. Michael Griffin, President and Chief Operating Officer of In-Q-Tel, said budget estimates of the cost of the President’s initiative – “$50-55 billion to rebuild a basic Apollo-like capability by 2020” – were overestimated. He noted this estimate was considerably higher than a 1991-1993 lunar outpost study he was involved in of which top-level cost estimates were about $30 billion in 2003 dollars, or 40 percent less than the President’s proposal.

Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) asked Dr. Griffin what he would “predict it would take us to go to the moon and then to go Mars?” Griffin answered, “I believe that the first expeditions to Mars should be accomplishable within an amount of funding approximately equal to what we spent on Apollo?in today’s dollars, about $130 billion. Certainly that would envelope it. I believe that it should be possible to return to the moon for in the neighborhood of $30 billion in today’s dollars. And those are both fairly comfortable amounts.” Griffin said those missions could “easily” be accomplished within those dollar amounts in 10 years, but “you would have to decide to do it and to allocate the money, but I think that’s the level of resource commitment that’s required.”

Dr. Donna Shirley, Director of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle and former Manager of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said she thought Dr. Griffin’s numbers were “pretty good, provided that we do the stepping-stone to the moon and we don’t stop there and we don’t start building infrastructure and don’t start doing what we did with Space Station. If we go to the moon and then right on to Mars?those are not bad numbers.”

“I do not have the figures to either agree or disagree with Dr. Griffin’s. I do however fear that once committing to go back to the moon we’ll never make it to Mars,” added Dr. Laurence Young, Apollo Program Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Founding Director of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute in Houston.

Dr. Lennard Fisk, Chair of the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board urged policymakers to consider a “learn-as-you-go” approach. “Deciding on these answers – how fast you go back to the moon, how much does it cost you, whether you go to Mars, is going to depend on each incremental step that we go?the moon appeals to me for the simple reason that we have an opportunity to go there and try out some of our technical solutions on the way and decide whether they’re going to be adequate?The cost of this thing should not – I don’t think we should try to find a number. We should try and find a number of what are the steps that we should take on which we learn something and we adjust our program to take the next logical step – incrementally walk through this thing,” said Dr. Fisk.

Mr. Norman Augustine, chair of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program and former Chief Executive Officer of Lockheed Martin, expressed his strong support for such a “stepwise” approach over such a long-term program. “If, for example, we are to pursue an objective that requires twenty years to achieve, that then implies we must have the sustained support of five consecutive presidential administrations, ten consecutive Congresses and twenty consecutive federal budgets – a feat the difficulty of which seems to eclipse any technological challenge space exploration may engender. This consideration argues for a major space undertaking that could be accomplished in step-wise milestones, each contributing to a uniting long-term goal?It is this consideration which justifies a mission to Mars with an initial step to the moon – as philosophically opposed to a return to the moon with a potential visit to Mars.”

Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Ranking Member Nick Lampson (D-TX) noted, “Mr. Augustine states in his written testimony that ‘it would be a grave mistake to try to pursue a space program ‘on the cheap.’ To do so is in my opinion an invitation to disaster.’ I could not agree more.”

Young discussed one of the most difficult challenges facing human missions to the moon or Mars: the impact of spending long periods in space on the human body. Dr. Young stated, “Overall, the current suite of exercise countermeasures, relying primarily on treadmill, resistance devices, is unreliable, time consuming, and inadequate by itself to assure the sufficient physical conditioning of astronauts going to Mars. Radiation remains the most vexing and difficult issue.” He discussed some research being conducted, but noted much remains to be done. He also argued, “The proposal to limit [International Space Station] research to the impact of space on human health and to end support for other important microgravity science and space technology seems short-sighted.”

Shirley also expressed several concerns with the President’s plan, noting, “The costs of the program are difficult to evaluate but there appear to be several strategic flaws, including a possibly premature phase-out of the shuttle and premature focus on a specific approach. There is no real information on which to judge the impact of exploration on other NASA missions.” She recommended that the Administration revisit the nation’s space exploration goals and suggested a process including workshops and studies that would bring in a wide-range of new stakeholders and fully engage the public in the effort.

Original Source: House Committee on Science News Release

NASA’s Future Plans for Mars Exploration

Image credit: NASA/JPL
Since their arrivals on Mars, our two robotic wanderers have sent us incredible images and data from one of our nearest neighbors in the Solar System. The primary science objective of the Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs) is to determine to what degree the past action of liquid water on Mars has influenced the Red Planet’s environment over time.

While there is no direct evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars today, the record of past water activity on Mars can be found in the rocks, minerals, and geologic landforms, particularly in some specific, diagnostic features that we believe form only in the presence of water. That is why both MERs are equipped with special tools to enable them to study a diverse collection of rocks and soils that may hold clues to past water activity on Mars and determine whether the planet ever had the potential to harbor life in the long-distant past, or, much less likely, today.

The information that NASA has gleaned in just the short amount of time that Spirit and Opportunity have been on the surface of Mars has been incredibly revealing. We have images that show rocks and surface structures in unprecedented detail. We are seeing a side of Mars that is vastly different from what we have encountered during past missions, because we targeted these special rovers to explore places that we knew would be compelling.

While we are incredibly pleased with the data and images we have obtained thus far and look forward to many more, we must not forget that traveling to and exploring Mars is a very challenging endeavor. As I have said many times before – both here on Capitol Hill and in the press – Mars is an extremely exciting and compelling Solar System destination, but it is also an incredibly difficult target, as history has often proven.

The landing and subsequent rollout of the two Rovers were practically picture perfect, which is a daunting engineering feat in and of itself, and one which makes me proud of NASA’s talented and capable Mars team. However, lest we became too confident about our Mars conquest, we were reminded of the significant challenges that operating on the Red Planet entails when the Spirit rover presented the Mars team with a serious technical challenge.

Spirit touched down in an area of Mars known as the Gusev Crater on January 4, 2004. After eighteen days of nearly flawless operation and after returning significant scientific data, including striking pictures of distant hills – and a rock affectionately dubbed “Adirondack ” – the Spirit rover developed an apparent communications problem that initially baffled the entire Mars team. In the ensuing days, Spirit sent us intermittent signals, and we sent the spacecraft numerous queries to try to diagnose the exact nature of the problem.

We were able to determine that the problem was related to software, and the team at JPL developed the necessary procedures and protocols to get Spirit back in business. Had Spirit’s communication problem been a hardware issue, we would be in much more dire straits for obvious reasons. Spirit is now performing as it was intended and continuing to explore its Martian surroundings.

Having actual data transmissions from Spirit’s descent to the Martian surface also provided significant benefits for the team planning the landing of the second Mars rover, Opportunity. Actual descent data from the first spacecraft were used to confirm our models of the behavior of the Martian atmosphere and weather – models which we depended on to plan Opportunity’s descent. The data from Spirit indicated that, while the descent was within the predicted limits of our engineering model, it was close to edge of the anticipated margins.

Armed with this new knowledge, NASA opted to open Opportunity’s parachute earlier to provide for a slower descent and a more gentle arrival on the Red Planet. On January 25, 2004, Opportunity bounced onto the opposite side of Mars – in an area called Meridiani Planum – from where its twin had landed.

The new landing location was “a world away ” from Gusev Crater in more ways than just distance. The initial images transmitted later that day fascinated the science team, revealing an area of dark soil and possible bedrock – a feature we have long searched for but never seen before on any planet’s surface – interspersed with patches of the more familiar red Martian soil. This region of Mars particularly interested planetary geologists because they believed it may contain abundant deposits of hematite, a mineral that, when found on Earth, has usually formed in the presence of persistent liquid water. We now know that their suspicions were correct.

On March 2, 2004, NASA announced that the Opportunity rover had found strong evidence that the area called Meridiani Planum was once soaking wet. Evidence found in an outcrop of rock led scientists to this important conclusion. Clues from the rocks’ composition, such as the presence of sulfates and salts, and the rocks’ physical attributes (e.g., niches where crystals once grew) helped make the case for a watery history. This area is scientifically compelling, and we intend to study it in further detail, hopefully revealing more secrets of the Red Planet.

Missions to Mars are launched approximately every two years (26 months), when the orbital alignments of the Earth and Mars allow the minimum amount of fuel to be used on the long trip. At each of these launch opportunities, NASA plans to send robotic spacecraft to Mars to continue searching for evidence of water, studying the rocks and soil of the planet, and attempting to answer the question, “Did life ever arise on Mars?” The Mars Exploration Program will attack this question by seeking to understand, in a systematic way, the current state and evolution of the atmosphere, surface, and interior of Mars, the potential for life on Mars in the past or present, and develop knowledge and technology necessary for future human exploration.

NASA’s Mars Program
This program is the result of an intensive planning process involving the broad science and technology community. The program incorporates the lessons learned from previous missions and builds upon, as well as responds to, scientific discoveries from past and on-going missions. In addition to the MERs, missions that comprise this systematic approach to Mars exploration are:

1. Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) – launched in 1996, this mission continues to return an unprecedented amount of data regarding Mars’ surface features and composition, atmosphere, weather, and magnetic properties. Scientists are using the data gathered from this mission both to learn about the Earth by comparing it to Mars and to build a comprehensive data set to aid in planning future missions. MGS also serves as a telecommunications relay for the MER missions, as well as a device for photographing landed spacecraft on the surface, such as the rovers.

2. Mars Odyssey – launched in 2001, the Odyssey orbiter is presently mapping the mineralogy and morphology of the Martian surface while achieving global mapping of the elemental composition of the surface and the abundance of hydrogen in the shallow subsurface. Its maps of hydrogen have suggested vast amounts of near-surface water ice in the polar regions of the planet. It also serves as a telecommunications relay for the MER missions.

3. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – scheduled for launch in 2005, MRO will focus on analyzing the surface at unprecedented new scales in an effort to follow tantalizing hints of water detected in images from the MGS and Odyssey spacecraft and to bridge the gap between surface observations and measurements from orbit. For example, MRO will measure thousands of Martian landscapes at 20- to 30-centimeter (8- to 12-inch) resolution, enabling observation of features the size of beach balls, while also mapping their mineralogies. This will help NASA target future landed laboratories to the best sites to search for evidence of life.

4. Phoenix – scheduled to launch in 2007, this mission will conduct a stationary, surface-based investigation of water ice contained within Martian soils, as well as searching for organic molecules and observing modern climate dynamics. It aims to “follow the water” and measure indicator molecules at high-latitude sites where Mars Odyssey has discovered evidence of large water ice concentrations in the Martian soil. Phoenix was selected as the first of the competed Mars Scout missions.

5. Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) – schedule to launch in 2009, this next generation rover represents a major leap in surface measurements and pave the way for future sample return and astrobiology missions. A long-life power source is planned to allow the science laboratory to conduct experiments for up to two years. Instruments for this surface laboratory may provide direct evidence of organic materials, if any exist, and will be able to search up to several feet beneath the surface. MSL will also demonstrate technologies for accurate landing and hazard avoidance in order to reach what may be very promising, but difficult-to-reach, scientific sites. Its landing location will be based on observations by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In the ensuing decade, from 2011-2018, NASA plans additional science orbiters, rovers, and landers, and the first mission to return the most promising Martian samples to Earth.

Current strategies call for the first sample return mission to be launched by 2014. Options that would significantly increase the rate of missions launched and/or accelerate the schedule of exploration are under study. Technology development for advanced capabilities, such as miniaturized surface science instruments and deep drilling to several hundred feet, will also be carried out in this period.

NASA has developed a campaign to explore Mars that will change and adapt over time in response to what is discovered and learned with each mission. The plan is meant to be a robust, flexible, long-term program that will provide the highest probability for success. We are moving from the early era of global mapping and limited surface exploration to a much more intensive and discovery-responsive approach. We will establish a sustained presence in orbit around Mars and on the surface with long-duration exploration of some of the most scientifically promising and intriguing places on the planet.

We plan to “follow the water,” so that in the not-too-distant future we may finally know the answers to the most far-reaching questions about the Red Planet we humans have asked over the generations: Did life ever arise there, and does life exist there now?

What’s Next
On January 14, 2003, President Bush announced his new vision for NASA and the Nation’s space program, and just last month the President’s FY 2005 budget was released. Both of those events support and indeed strengthen NASA’s vision for Mars exploration over the next decade and beyond. NASA’s comprehensive, robotic approach to exploring Mars and learning the intricacies of its environment will not only seek to achieve the science goals outlined in this testimony, it will also serve as a solid foundation for the President’s vision of eventually conducting a human exploration mission to Mars.

Original Source: Astrobiology Magazine

Rosetta’s Asteroid Targets Decided

Image credit: ESA
Today the Rosetta Science Working Team has made the final selection of the asteroids that Rosetta will observe at close quarters during its journey to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Steins and Lutetia lie in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Rosetta’s scientific goals always included the possibility of studying one or more asteroids from close range. However, only after Rosetta’s launch and its insertion into interplanetary orbit could the ESA mission managers assess how much fuel was actually available for fly-bys. Information from the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Germany enabled Rosetta’s Science Working Team to select a pair of asteroids of high scientific interest, well within the fuel budget.

The selection of these two excellent targets was made possible by the high accuracy with which the Ariane 5 delivered the spacecraft into its orbit. This of course leaves sufficient fuel for the core part of the mission, orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for 17 months when Rosetta reaches its target in 2014.

Asteroids are primitive building blocks of the Solar System, left over from the time of its formation about 4600 million years ago. Only a few asteroids have so far been observed from nearby. They are very different in shape and size, ranging from a few kilometres to over 100 kilometres across, and in their composition.

The targets selected for Rosetta, Steins and Lutetia, have rather different properties. Steins is relatively small, with a diameter of a few kilometres, and will be visited by Rosetta on 5 September 2008 at a distance of just over 1700 kilometres. This encounter will take place at a relatively low speed of about 9 kilometres per second during Rosetta’s first excursion into the asteroid belt.

Lutetia is a much bigger object, about 100 kilometres in diameter. Rosetta will pass within about 3000 kilometres on 10 July 2010 at a speed of 15 kilometres per second. This will be during Rosetta’s second passage through the asteroid belt.

Rosetta will obtain spectacular images as it flies by these primordial rocks. Its onboard instruments will provide information on the mass and density of the asteroids, thus telling us more about their composition, and will also measure their subsurface temperature and look for gas and dust around them.

Rosetta began its journey just over a week ago, on 2 March, and is well on its way. Commissioning of its instruments has already started and is proceeding according to plan.

“Comets and asteroids are the building blocks of our Earth and the other planets in the Solar System. Rosetta will conduct the most thorough analysis so far of three of these objects,” said Prof. David Southwood, Director of ESA?s Science Programme. “Rosetta will face lots of challenges during its 12-year journey, but the scientific insights that we will gain into the origin of the Solar System and, possibly, of life are more than rewarding.”

Original Source: ESA News Release

Prints Available For Hubble Deep Field

After yesterday’s wallpaper image of the new Hubble Deep Field Survey containing more than 10,000 galaxies, I had a couple of requests from people for me to a make a printed version available. Done. Click this link to go to the photo gallery, and then click on “Hubble Space Telescope”. The first image is of the survey, and you can order a printed copy up to 20″ x 30″.


Fraser Cain
Universe Today

Early Oceans Might Have Had Little Oxygen

Image credit: NASA
As two rovers scour Mars for signs of water and the precursors of life, geochemists have uncovered evidence that Earth’s ancient oceans were much different from today’s. The research, published in this week’s issue of the journal Science, cites new data that shows that Earth’s life-giving oceans contained less oxygen than today’s and could have been nearly devoid of oxygen for a billion years longer than previously thought. These findings may help explain why complex life barely evolved for billions of years after it arose.

The scientists, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and affiliated with the University of Rochester, have pioneered a new method that reveals how ocean oxygen might have changed globally. Most geologists agree there was virtually no oxygen dissolved in the oceans until about 2 billion years ago, and that they were oxygen-rich during most of the last half-billion years. But there has always been a mystery about the period in between.

Geochemists developed ways to detect signs of ancient oxygen in particular areas, but not in the Earth’s oceans as a whole. The team’s method, however, can be extrapolated to grasp the nature of all oceans around the world.

“This is the best direct evidence that the global oceans had less oxygen during that time,” says Gail Arnold, a doctoral student of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester and lead author of the research paper.

Adds Enriqueta Barrera, program director in NSF’s division of earth sciences, “This study is based on a new approach, the application of molybdenum isotopes, which allows scientists to ascertain global perturbations in ocean environments. These isotopes open a new door to exploring anoxic ocean conditions at times across the geologic record.”

Arnold examined rocks from northern Australia that were at the floor of the ocean over a billion years ago, using the new she had method developed by her and co-authors, Jane Barling and Ariel Anbar. Previous researchers had drilled down several meters into the rock and tested its chemical composition, confirming it had kept original information about the oceans safely preserved. The team members brought those rocks back to their labs where they used newly developed technology -called a Multiple Collector Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer-to examine the molybdenum isotopes within the rocks.

The element molybdenum enters the oceans through river runoff, dissolves in seawater, and can stay dissolved for hundreds of thousands of years. By staying in solution so long, molybdenum mixes well throughout the oceans, making it an excellent global indicator. It is then removed from the oceans into two kinds of sediments on the seafloor: those that lie beneath waters, oxygen-rich and those that are oxygen-poor.

Working with coauthor Timothy Lyons of the University of Missouri, the Rochester team examined samples from the modern seafloor, including the rare locations that are oxygen-poor today. They learned that the chemical behavior of molybdenum’s isotopes in sediments is different depending on the amount of oxygen in the overlying waters. As a result, the chemistry of molybdenum isotopes in the global oceans depends on how much seawater is oxygen-poor. They also found that the molybdenum in certain kinds of rocks records this information about ancient oceans. Compared to modern samples, measurements of the molybdenum chemistry in the rocks from Australia point to oceans with much less oxygen.

How much less oxygen is the question. A world full of anoxic oceans could have serious consequences for evolution. Eukaryotes, the kind of cells that make up all organisms except bacteria, appear in the geologic record as early as 2.7 billion years ago. But eukaryotes with many cells-the ancestors of plants and animals- did not appear until a half billion years ago, about the time the oceans became rich in oxygen. With paleontologist Andrew Knoll of Harvard University, Anbar previously advanced the hypothesis that an extended period of anoxic oceans may be the key to why the more complex eukaryotes barely eked out a living while their prolific bacterial cousins thrived. Arnold’s study is an important step in testing this hypothesis.

“It’s remarkable that we know so little about the history of our own planet’s oceans,” says Anbar. “Whether or not there was oxygen in the oceans is a straightforward chemical question that you’d think would be easy to answer. It shows just how hard it is to tease information from the rock record and how much more there is for us to learn about our origins.”

Figuring out just how much less oxygen was in the oceans in the ancient past is the next step. The scientists plan to continue studying molybdenum chemistry to answer that question, with continuing support from NSF and NASA, the agencies that supported the initial work. The information will not only shed light on our own evolution, but may help us understand the conditions we should look for as we search for life beyond Earth.

Original Source: NSF News Release

Terraforming Mars One Piece at a Time

Image credit: NASA
Locally, Earth has its habitable extremes: Antarctica, the Sahara desert, the Dead Sea, Mount Etna. Globally, our blue planet is positioned in the solar system’s habitable zone, or ‘Goldilocks’ region where the temperature and pressure are just right to support liquid water and life. Across the borders from this goldilocks zone orbit our two neighbors: the runaway greenhouse planet, Venus–which in goldilocks’ terms is ‘too hot’–and the frigid red planet, Mars, which is ‘too cold’.

With an average global temperature of -55 C, Mars is a very cold planet. The standard models for warming Mars raise this average temperature with greenhouse gases first, then plant cold-adapted crops and photosynthetic microbes. This terraforming model includes various refinements such as orbital mirrors and chemical factories which pour out fluorocarbons. Eventually with the help of biology, industrialization, and time, the atmosphere would begin to get thicker (the current martian atmosphere is 99% thinner than the Earth’s). To terraform Mars, depending on the choice and concentration of greenhouse gases used, can take many decades to centuries before an astronaut might begin to lift a visor and for the first time, breathe martian air. Such proposals would initiate the first conscious effort at planetary engineeering, and aim to change the global environment into one less hostile to life as we know it terrestrially.

Another version to these global changes is a local one familiar to those who have trekked the Sahara. Occasionally life blossoms into a desert oasis. A local strategy to change Mars, according to biologist Omar Pensado Diaz, director of the Mex-Areohab project, can best be compared to transforming Mars one oasis at a time. The minimum size of the oasis extends to the diameter of a dome-shaped plastic cover, much like a greenhouse with a space heater. In this way, microterraforming is the smaller alternative for a planet that otherwise is an open system leaking to space. Diaz contrasts the way a physicist might change Mars with industrial tools to the hothouse methods of a biologist.

Diaz talked with Astrobiology Magazine about what it might mean to remodel Mars with tiny stadiums, until they grow into lush, desert oases.

Astrobiology Magazine (AM) : Would it be correct to conclude that you are studying the differences between a global and local terraforming strategy?

Omar Pensado Diaz (OPD): I am looking forward to integrating the models, rather focusing on their differences. Global terraforming, or warming a planet with super greenhouse gases, is a strategy or model conceived from the perspective of physics; while the model I propose is seen from a biological point of view.

I am talking about a model called microterraforming, which will be possible with a tool named the Minimal Unit of Terraforming (MUT). The concept of a Minimal Unit of Terraforming is explained as an ecosystem running as the fundamental unit of nature. A MUT comprises a group of living organisms and their physical and chemical environment where they live, but applied to the development of a biological colonization and remodeling process on Mars.

An artist’s conception of how a terraformed Mars, with an ocean spanning most of its northern hemisphere, might look from orbit.Mars, as terraformed by Michael Carroll. In 1991 this image was used on the front cover of the ‘Making Mars Habitable’ issue of Nature.

Technically speaking, it is a pressurized dome-shaped greenhouse that would contain and protect an interior ecosystem. This complex would not be isolated from the surroundings; on the contrary it would be constantly in contact with it, but in a controlled way.

What is important is gas exchange between the MUT Units and the Martian environment, so the ecosystem itself has a dramatic role. The objective of this process is to generate photosynthesis. Here is where we must consider plants as covering the surface and chemical factories processing the atmosphere.

AM: What would be the advantages of working locally, using your model of an oasis in a desert? By biological analogy to a fundamental terraforming unit, do you mean like how biological cells have an internal equilibrium, but also exchanges with an external one that differs for the whole host?

OPD: The advantages I find in this model are that we can initiate a terraforming process faster, but in stages, that is why it is microterraforming.

But the major and most important advantage is that we can make plant life begin to participate in this process with the help of technology. Life is information and it processes the information around it, beginning an adaptation process to the inner conditions of the unit. Here we maintain that life has plasticity and that it not only adapts to the surrounding conditions, but also it adapts the environment to its own circumstances. In the language of genetics, this means that there are an interaction between the genotype and the environment, producing the adaptation of phenotypical expressions to the dominant conditions.

Now, in a small environment such as a Unit with a diameter of approximately 15 or 20 yards, we could have a much warmer environment than outside the Unit.

AM: Describe what a Unit might look like.

OPD: A transparent, plastic-fiber, double-layered dome. The dome would generate a greenhouse effect inside that would raise significantly the temperature during the daytime and would protect the inside from low temperatures at night. Furthermore, the atmosphere’s pressure would be higher inside by 60 to 70 millibars. That would be enough to allow the plants’ photosynthetic processes as well as liquid water.

In thermodynamic terms, we are now talking about a lack of equilibrium. In order to reactivate Mars, we need to create a thermodynamic disequilibrium. The Unit would generate what is needed first, like ground degassing from temperature differences. Such process is an objective along with the path to a global strategy.

Strictly speaking, the Units would be like carbon dioxide capturing traps; they would release oxygen and generate biomass. The oxygen would then be released to the atmosphere periodically. A valve system would release gases to the outside and once the inner atmospheric pressure had decreased up to 40 or 35 milibars, the valves would close automatically. And others would open and, by suction, gas would get inside the Unit and the original atmospheric pressure would level off. This system would not only allow the release of oxygen but also the release of other gases.

AM: In such an oasis model, it is an open system, but would it have no effect on regional conditions. In other words, would local leakage get diluted, and in those cases, how is microterraforming different from just operating greenhouses?

OPD: The greenhouses–in this case the Minimal Unit of Terraforming–are thought to begin a gradual change on Mars. The difference depends on its range of action, since that’s where the microterraforming process begins. Besides, it depend on how you look at it, because with this method we are trying to repeat the evolution pattern that once was successful on Earth, in order to transform the planet’s atmosphere into another and to make Mars enter in a stage of thermodynamic disequilibrium.

The major advantage is that we can control a terraforming process at a micro-scale; we can turn Mars into a similar place to the Earth faster and make it interact with the surrounding environment at the same time. That is the most important aspect of it: to get ahead with faster processes. As I said before, the idea is to follow the same evolution pattern that developed on Earth soon after photosynthesis appeared. There were terrestrial plants that remodeled and terraformed the Earth, generating carbon dixoide from the surface and distributing it to the atmosphere that existed at that time.

Drs. Chris McKay and Robert Zubrin presented an interesting model that proposes to collocate three large orbital mirrors. The mirrors would reflect the Sun’s light to the south pole of Mars and sublimate the dry ice (carbon dioxide snow) layer in order to increase the greenhouse effect and then accelerate the planet’s global warming.

Such mirrors would be the size of Texas.

I think that if the same infrastructure used in those mirrors were instead used to build domes for a Minimal Unit of Terraforming over the Martian surface, we would be generating higher degassing rates and oxygenating the atmosphere faster. In addition, part of the surface would be warmed anyway, since the Units would hold solar heat, not reflect it from the surface.

The lack of liquid water for the ecosystems inside the Units is debatable; however, a variant of a proposal by Dr. Adam Bruckner from the University of Washington, can be used. It consists on using a zeolite (mineral catalyst) condenser; then, extracting water from the moisture of incoming air. Water would pour inside daily. Again, we would be activating some stages of a hydrological cycle, capturing carbon dioxide, releasing gases to the atmosphere and making the surface a more fertile ground. We would be doing an accelerated terraforming on a very small part of Mars, but if we put hundreds of those Units, the degassing effects over the surface and atmosphere will have planetary repercussions.

AM: When closed biospheres have operated on Earth like Biosphere 2, problems arose with–for instance–oxygen loss due to combination with rock to form carbonates. Are there examples today of large-scale, self-sustaining systems on Earth?

OPD: Large-scale, self-sustaining systems built by humans? I don’t know any, but life itself is a self-sustaining system that takes from the surrounding environment what it needs to work.

That was the problem of closed biospheres, they were not able to make a feedback circuit as it happens on Earth. Furthermore, the system I propose would not be closed; it would interact with the environment of Mars in intervals, by releasing part of what would have been processed by the action of photosynthesis while incorporating new gases. The Minimal Unit of Terraforming will not be a closed system.

If we take into account James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia theory’, we could consider Earth as a large-scale, self-sustaining system, because the biogeochemical cycles are active–a situation that is not happening today on Mars. A large portion of its oxygen is combined with its surface, giving the planet an oxidized character. In this sense, inside the Minimal Unit of Terraforming, the biogeochemical cycles would be reactivated. These domes would liberate oxygen and carbonates, among others, so the release would begin to flow gradually to the planet’s atmosphere.

AM: The quickest method often cited for global terraforming is to introduce fluorocarbons into the Martian atmosphere. With small percentage changes, big temperature and pressure changes follow. This relies on solar interaction. Would a closed bubble have this mechanism available, for instance if ultraviolet light is not penetrating into the domes?

OPD: We are talking about an alternate way from that–not using fluorocarbons and other greenhouse gases. The method we propose captures carbon dioxide for biomass increase, liberates oxygen and inner heat storage, all to generate a carbon dioxide degassing inside the Unit. Other gases trapped in the ground today would be released to the Martian atmosphere to densify it gradually. Actually, the direct exposure of an ecosystem to ultraviolet rays would be counterproductive for the carbon dioxide capture, biomass formation and ground gas generation. Precisely, the dome functions to protect an ecosystem from cold and ultraviolet radiation, as well as maintaining its inner pressure.

Now, the dome would be an important heat trap and a thermal insulator. Making the earlier cell analogy, the dome is like a biological membrane that drives the local ecosystem to thermodynamic disequilibrium. That disequilibrium would allow life to develop.

AM: Would high local concentrations of greenhouse gases (like methane, carbon dioxide or CFCs) be locally toxic before having any effects globally?

OPD: Life can adapt to conditions that are toxic for us; an elevated carbon dioxide concentration can be beneficial for plants, and even increase their production, or, as with methane, there are some methanogenic organisms that require this gas for their subsistence.

Such gases are appropriate for raising the global temperature; on the other hand, carbon dioxide is the most appropriate gas for plant life. The aim is to reproduce evolutionary patterns leading to a gradual adaptation of these organisms to a new environment, and the adaptation of the environment to these organism.

AM: Global terraforming on Mars has time ranges that vary between a century to even long times. Are there ways to estimate whether local efforts might accelerate habitability, using the oasis model you suggest?

OPD: That will depend on the plants’ photosynthetic efficiency and their capability to adapt themselves to the environment while adapting the environment. However, we can consider two appraisals: one local and one global.

In a more explicit way, those appraisals can be first measured on each Minimal Unit of Terraforming through its photosynthetic efficiency, oxygenation speed, carbon dioxide capture and degassing of the dome’s surface. This rate would depend on the solar incidence and the greenhouse effect. At a global level, the speed of the planet’s remodelling would depend on how many Minimal Units could be installed all over the Martian surface. That is to say, if there exist more Minimal Units of Terraforming, the planet’s transformation would be completed faster.

I’d like to clarify something I think is important at this point. The major achievement would be to turn Mars into a green planet before humans could inhabit it in the way we do on Earth today. It would be extraordinary to see how plant life responds, first inside the Minimal Unit of Terraforming and then, when those machines had finished their cycle and life emerges as an explosion to the exterior, to see the unstoppable speciation that would take place, since life would respond to the environment and the environment would respond to life.

And so, we may watch trees, such as pines that on Earth have a large and straight timber. On Mars we may have a more pliable species, one strong enough to resist low temperatures and blowing winds. As photosynthetic machines, the pines would be fulfilling their role as planetary transformers, keeping water, minerals and carbon dioxide for the accumulation of biomass.

AM: What future plans do you have for the research?

OPD: I want to initiate partial simulations of the Martian conditions. This is needed to probe and improve the operation of the Minimal Unit of Terraforming, as well as the physiological response of plants in such conditions. In other words, rehearsals.

This is a multidisciplinary and inter-institutional investigation, so the participation of engineers, biologists and genetic specialists will be necessary as well as other scientific organizations interested in the subject. I must say this is just the first attempt; it is a theory of what could be done and one that we could try on our own planet, for instance, by fighting against the aggressive desert spreading, by rehabilitating grounds and creating obstacles to stop its gradual advance.

Original Source: Astrobiology Magazine

Here’s an article about a similar project. Remember Biosphere 2?

Huge Submillimeter Instrument in the Works

Image credit: Caltech
The California Institute of Technology and Cornell University are in the planning stages for a new 25-meter telescope to be built in Chile. The submillimeter telescope will cost an estimated $60 million and will be nearly two times larger in diameter than the largest submillimeter telescope currently in existence.

The first step of the plan, which is being announced today jointly by Caltech and Cornell, commits the two institutions to a $2-million study, says Jonas Zmuidzinas, a physics professor at Caltech who is leading the Institute’s part of the collaboration. The telescope is projected for a 2012 completion date on a high site in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, and will significantly ramp up Caltech’s research in submillimeter astronomy.

Scientists from Cornell, Caltech, and Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will be participating in the telescope study, including Caltech faculty members Andrew Blain, Sunil Golwala, Andrew Lange, Tom Phillips, Anthony Readhead, Anneila Sargent, and others.

“We are very much looking forward to working with our Cornell colleagues on this project,” says Zmuidzinas.

At Cornell, the participants will include professors Riccardo Giovanelli, Terry Herter, Gordon Stacey, and Bob Brown.

Submillimeter wavelength astronomy allows the study of a number of astrophysical phenomena that do not emit much visible or infrared light. The new telescope will observe stars and planets forming from swirling disks of gas and dust, will make measurements to determine the composition of the molecular clouds from which the stars are born, and could even discover large numbers of galaxies undergoing huge bursts of star formation in the very distant universe.

Also, the 25-meter telescope could be used to study the origin of large-scale structure in the universe.

“So far, we have gotten just a small taste of what there is to learn at submillimeter wavelengths,” says Zmuidzinas. “This telescope will be a huge step forward for the field.”

The new telescope is poised to take advantage of the rapid development of sensitive superconducting detectors, an area in which Zmuidzinas and his Caltech/JPL colleagues have been making important contributions. The new superconducting detectors enable large submillimeter cameras to be built, which will produce very sensitive panoramic images of the submillimeter sky.

The 25-meter telescope is a natural progression in Caltech and JPL’s longstanding interest in submillimeter astronomy. Caltech already operates the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO), a 10.4-meter telescope constructed and operated with funding from the National Science Foundation, with Tom Phillips serving as director. The telescope is fitted with sensitive submillimeter detectors and cameras, many of which were developed in collaboration with JPL, making it ideal for seeking out and observing the diffuse gases and their constituent molecules, crucial to understanding star formation.

The advantages of the new telescope will be fourfold. First, due to the larger size of its mirror and its more accurate surface, the 25-meter telscope should provide six to 12 times the light-gathering ability of the CSO, depending on the exact wavelength. Second, the larger diameter and better surface will result in much sharper images of the sky. Third, the large new cameras will provide huge advantages over those currently available.

Finally, the 16,500-foot elevation of the Atacama Desert will provide an especially dry sky for maximum effectiveness. Submillimeter wavelengths (as short as two-tenths of a millimeter) are strongly absorbed by the water vapor in the atmosphere. For maximum effectiveness, a submillimeter telescope must be located at a very high, very dry altitude–the higher the better–or best of all, in space.

However, while the idea of a large (10-meter) submillimeter telescope in space is being considered by NASA and JPL, it is still more than a decade away. Meanwhile, existing space telescopes such as the Hubble and the Spitzer work at shorter wavelengths, in the visible and infrared, respectively.

In 2007, the European Space Agency plans to launch the 3.5-meter Herschel Space Observatory, which will be the first general-purpose submillimeter observatory in space. NASA is participating in this project, and scientists at JPL and Caltech are providing detectors and components for the science instruments.

“It is a very exciting time for submillimeter astronomy,” says Zmuidzinas. “We are making rapid progress on all fronts–in detectors, instruments, and new facilities–and this is leading to important scientific discoveries.”

Original Source: Caltech News Release

Bad Astronomy Debunks Mars Face

Do you think the “Face on Mars” was created by aliens? Perhaps you might want to read a recent article by the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait. In this multi-page guide, Plait dismantles the NASA conspiracy claims of Richard Hoagland, setting the record straight. It’s great reading, and does a good job of explaining some larger issues, like why it’s hard to get true colour images of Mars, and how you can get funny patterns in almost anything you look at. You should also check out Plait’s previous defense against the Moon landing hoaxes. And while you’re at it, buy his book? Bad Astronomy.

Nice work Phil.

Fraser Cain
Universe Today

NASA Learns More About Bone Loss in Space

Image credit: NASA
A new NASA-funded study revealed how bone loss increases the risk of injuries, highlighting the need for additional measures to ensure the health of spacecraft crews.The study provides new information about bone loss caused by prolonged spaceflight. The study is in the online version of the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research.

The research team was from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and Baylor College of Medicine, Houston. The team used three-dimensional X-ray computed tomography (CT) to study the effect of prolonged weightlessness on the bone mineral density and structure of the hip in a group of 14 American and Russian International Space Station crewmembers. The crewmembers spent from four to six months onboard the Station. The research suggests additional conditioning exercises and other countermeasures may be necessary to prevent bone mineral loss.

“This study underlines the importance of continuing to develop countermeasures to preserve musculoskeletal conditioning in long-duration space travelers,” said Guy Fogleman, director of Bioastronautics Research in NASA’s Office of Biological and Physical Research, Washington. “Results of this research, which may aid people on Earth who suffer for similar conditions including osteoporosis, are being shared with the medical community,” he added.

This study is the first to use CT imaging to three-dimensionally quantify spaceflight-related bone loss in the hip and to estimate changes in hipbone strength. Previous studies used a two-dimensional imaging technology called dual X-ray absorptiometry.

The CT measurements in the hip were performed pre- and post-flight to measure bone loss in the porous bone in the interior of the hip and in the dense outer shell of the hipbone. On average, the Station crew lost interior bone at a rate of 2.2 to 2.7 percent for each month in space and outer bone at a rate of 1.6 to 1.7 percent per month.

“Our study demonstrates that bone loss occurs in the Space Station crewmembers at a rate comparable to that observed almost a decade before in the crew of the Russian Mir spacecraft,” said Thomas Lang, UCSF associate professor of radiology and principal investigator on the study. “The lack of clear progress in the interval between Mir and Station missions indicates a need for continued efforts to improve musculoskeletal conditioning regimens during longer space missions, such as those proposed for the moon and Mars,” Lang said.

The investigators used information from the CT images to estimate changes in the strength of the hipbone. They found on average the hipbone strength declined by 2.5 percent for each month of flight. Since the amount of bone loss increases with mission length, crewmembers on multiyear explorations may face increased risk of fracture upon return to Earth gravity. In addition, those who do not recover the lost bone may be at increased risk of fracture as they age.

The researchers also analyzed loss of density in vertebrae (back bones). Vertebrae, along with the hip, are the skeletal sites associated most with serious osteoporotic fractures in the elderly. The study found on average, the Station crew lost vertebral bone at a rate of 0.8 to 0.9 percent per month, which was consistent with data from earlier long-duration missions.

To view the study on the Internet, visit:


For information about space research on the Internet, visit:


Original Source: NASA News Release