Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell UniversityThe science gathered so far by the two Martian rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, suggests the Red Planet may have been a bit too inhospitable to support even the toughest forms of life.
Although strong evidence of water (at least in the planet’s past) has been found on Mars, recent assessment of the data shows it contains a much higher salt content than expected and that practically puts the kibosh on hopes of any microbes flourishing there.
Opportunity spent time recently examining strata exposed on the inner wall of Victoria Crater. NASA scientists hoped it would show a record of the ground surface as it existed prior to impact that created the crater. But analysis suggests it to be the top of an underground water table, and after reassessing earlier data, and performing some computer modeling, researchers think the environment may have been too harsh to support life.
"At first, we focused on acidity, because the environment would have been very acidic," said Dr. Andrew Knoll, a Harvard biologist who is a member of the rover science team. "Now, we also appreciate the high salinity of the water when it left behind the minerals Opportunity found. This tightens the noose on the possibility of life."
Knoll spoke at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston.
"Life at the Martian surface would have been very challenging for the last 4 billion years. The best hopes for a story of life on Mars are at environments we haven't studied yet -- older ones, subsurface ones," he said.
Lower, more ancient, geological layers may hold a more hospitable picture of a less briny Martian environment, but the current rover missions aren’t set up to examine that.
"Our next missions, Phoenix and Mars Science Laboratory, mark a transition from water to habitability -- assessing whether sites where there's been water have had conditions suited to life," said Charles Elachi, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Where conditions were habitable, later missions may look for evidence of life."
The Phoenix lander is expected to reach Mars on May 25, 2008 in an area farther north on the planet where it will study the icy subsurface for viable signs of life. The Mars Science Laboratory will launch in the fall of 2009.
Opportunity and Spirit, the two rovers operating presently on opposite sides of the Mars, were sent there with one mission in mind: finding evidence of water. The missions were expected to last a mere three months, but have far surpassed that due to the robots’ high endurance, and problem-solving ingenuity of NASA engineers back on Earth. The robots are now entering their fifth year exploring the Martian surface.
Courtesy aymanshammaThe future of the human race, indeed the future of the planet Earth, has been foolishly gambled on the taste and temper of distant alien civilizations, some scientists say.
This week, NASA began to beam the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe” across the, er, universe. Well, not across the universe exactly—the transmission was aimed at the North Star, 431 light years away. Sir Paul McCartney was enthused over the action, and Yoko Ono had something to say (which I skipped over, because it was weird and boring). Ringo Starr, oddly enough, seems not to have been notified.
The transmission has also raised discussion over just what humans should be broadcasting to other planets, and what potential risks might be associated with such actions. This has been a particularly hot topic among SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) Institute researchers at the “Sounds of Silence” conference at the Arizona State University in Tempe this week. “Before sending out even symbolic messages, we need an open discussion about the potential risks," says one SETI member.
I agree entirely. I’m afraid, however, that the damage may already have been done. As the article points out, transmissions from Earth have long been washing across the universe. Military transmissions have already penetrated deep space, and, more worryingly, old episodes of “I Love Lucy” and “Star Trek” pass through an average of one star system a day. We can only hope that some of the more sensitive aliens haven’t been paying close attention to their television sets—I’m not sure how many aliens they can watch William Shatner punch out, or how cheerfully they can bear Lucy’s cough-syrup addiction, before they decide that the universe might be better off without humanity. Then again, maybe aliens are into that kind of stuff. They might just be on the edge of their seats (or whatever aliens sit on, if they sit), waiting for the next episode of Full House. What will happen to Comet? Is the family safe under Danny’s tentative grip on normal human behavior? And what about Uncle Jessie’s hair? Don’t laugh, people—you all know that things work out for the Tanners, but the aliens are way behind us.
Another SETI researcher sensibly pointed out to those who might harbor serious concern over the Polarisians reaction to “Across the Universe” that "the one thing we know about aliens - if they do exist - is that they are very, very far away."
Yes. That’s true.
The Netherlands has a long history of flooding – over half the country is below sea level – and during the North Sea flood of 1953, nearly 2,000 Dutch lost their lives in a flood after sea water breached several dikes and water poured into unsuspecting villages during the night of February 1, 1953. Even before this particular natural disaster, the Dutch had been dealing with the problems of living in a low-lying area, and in the 1950’s embarked on a massive civil-engineering project called Delta Works.
Delta Works is a network of dams, sluices, locks, dikes, and storm surge barriers that are set up to protect the Netherlands from future flooding. The work is incredibly vast, and was completed in 1997 when the Maeslantkering (the largest moving structure on Earth) was completed.
But now, the Netherlands faces another problem – global warming – and the associated risk of increased winter rain in Europe, according to the climate-change models. That will bring high water to the Meuse and Rhine rivers that flow into Holland. The strategy is now different. Instead of the historic approach of raising the heights of the dikes to contain the rivers, the Netherlands is going to lower some dikes to allow flooding in certain areas of the country to relieve pressure in others. So instead of keeping the water out, they are allowing the water, to a certain extent, go where it wants. The plan, called “Room for the River”, was featured in a recent NPR story. The story includes a cool feature that shows the impact of climate change on low-lying regions around the world.
Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of WashingtonJust like that person heading back from the photo shop with a new packet of developed film, NASA is sharing its latest views of the planet closest to our solar system’s center. And what we’re seeing is surprising astronomers.
The images were among 1,2000 collected by the Messenger spacecraft as it passed Mercury two-and-a-half weeks ago. A full series of photos and movies is available through this NASA link.
These new photos have uncovered some new discoveries about Mercury’s geology. Particularly interesting is a formation called “The Spider,” a crater-like depression with more than 100 narrow troughs radiating from it.
Also discovered were a bunch of ancient volcanoes and a very cratered, rocky surface that makes Mercury look a lot like our Moon.
Messenger will pass by the planet a couple more times in the coming years before settling into an orbit around the planet in 2011 to do further study. Among the tasks it will tackle on that part of the journey is to examine the magnetic fields that spur out from the planet. As far as astronomers can tell, Mercury is the only other planet along with Earth that has such strong magnetic fields.
Courtesy NASALate on the evening of January 29, astronomers expect an asteroid the width of several football fields to pass within spitting distance of the Earth. So close will the proximity be, in fact, that NASA has issued a global statement urging all people over six feet in height to spend the night of the twenty ninth lying down, or at least ducking.
The consequences of a direct collision between a human head and an asteroid somewhere between 150 and 600 meters in diameter, doctors say, could potentially be devastating. Due to the peculiar physics of the situation, it is very likely that the head would suffer the greater damage, turning first into something like strawberry pudding, and then immediately into something like cherry-scented mist. The asteroid may or may not receive a small stain.
Ecologists have expressed concern over the impending event as well. Most humans will easily dodge the astral body by simply reducing their height temporarily. Many animals, however, will not have this option. Giraffes, for instance, are expected to suffer heavily.
As distressing as the prospect of bonking your forehead into such a large piece of space rock may be, astronomers suggest that we look on the bright side, and consider ourselves lucky that the asteroid will not actually impact upon the planet. It is thought that the Earth undergoes a collision of similar scale every 37,000 years or so. Were such an asteroid to hit on land, it would explode like a 1500-megaton bomb, and create a crater three miles wide. Were it to fall in the ocean, which is more likely, it would result in a massive tsunami.
As it will actually be passing about 334,000 miles away from the Earth (about 100,000 miles further out than the moon), any buzzketeers interested in seeing the asteroid should be able to do so with a “modest-sized” telescope, It’s going to look small, though.
Courtesy NASAThere are a couple new films out about the Apollo moon program. Well, at least they’re new to me since I haven’t seen them. I really enjoyed IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON when I saw it last fall, but I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. I thought the Apollo program was the cat’s pajamas, and a high point of the good ol’ USA’s spirit of adventure and exploration. Not to mention our chutzpah for pulling off such an astounding feat in less than a decade from when we declared we were going to do so.
Courtesy NASAThe first of the new films is the most recent. Its title is THE WONDER OF IT ALL and I guess deals with the human aspect of the adventures of the 12 men who walked on the Moon back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The film played last weekend at Kennedy Space Center as a benefit for the US Space Walk of Fame in Titusville, Florida in hopes to drum up funds for a planned memorial there for the Apollo program and the astronauts involved.
According to the producers, the award-winning documentary tells “a humanistic story” through interviews with 7 of the Apollo astronauts, that details their lives and how each was affected by walking on the Moon.
The other film is called MAGNIFICENT DESOLATION and is an IMAX production in 3D. It was released in 2005 under the tutelage of none other than Forrest Gump, …er I mean Tom Hanks, who’s listed as producer, co-writer, and narrator. From what I understand, this film is more of a reenactment that simulates what the astronauts saw and did while on the Moon’s surface. It was shot in 3D on a soundstage, and according to Apollo 16’s Charlie Duke “It felt like you were on the Moon driving a rover with those guys. It brought me right back onto the lunar surface.” Hey, maybe they used the same stage where conspiracy theorists claim the real moon missions were faked (there has been criticism that the film provides fodder to those sorts). No matter. I still want to see it. Perhaps the Science Museum will bring it in for a run, if not for our visitors’ sake, at least for mine.
Courtesy billypaloozaAhoy, Buzzketeers! Put on your astronomy hats and your alien diapers, because Spirit, the Mars rover, has got something crazy to show you: a picture of a person (a Martian person) sitting on a rock on the surface of Mars! (Check out the link for the actual photos.)
“A person on Mars?” you say. “What would a person be doing on Mars?” I knew you would say that, because you’re such a doubter, and the answer is obvious from the picture: they’re waiting for a bus, clearly. At least that’s how the article describes it, and it makes sense, because there’s nothing else to do on the surface of Mars. Unless you’re into rocks.
“You know,” you add, “We’ve seen faces and stuff on Mars before. And they’re made of rock. And they don’t even look very facey when you really check them out.” I knew you would say that, too. Sure, they’re probably just made of rock, but if you’re waiting for a bus (and I didn’t see any buses on the way, so it looks like a long wait) on the frosty surface of mars, it probably helps to be made of rock. I mean, really, take off your astronomy hat for just a second, and put on your thinking cap, because you’ve got to try stepping outside the box on this one.
Pretty rad, huh? Although, I always thought Martians would be, I don’t know, greener.
Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of WashingtonYesterday at 1:04 p.m. Central Time the Messenger spacecraft passed within 124 miles of Mercury – the first of three gravity assist flybys used to get the spacecraft into orbit around the planet in 2011.
Messenger, launched in 2004, took more than 1,200 images of the planet (including images of the never before seen opposite side of the planet) during this flyby. It is the first spacecraft to visit Mercury since the Mariner 10 in 1975. The data should be arriving back to Earth as I write this on Tuesday.
Courtesy NASAI saw this story as I was flipping through the January 2008 issue of National Geographic. Since May 2006 a mud volcano has been “erupting” 18.5 million gallons of hot mud a day along with hydrogen sulphide gas in Sidoarjo, East Java, 22 miles south of Indonesia's second largest city, Surabaya. The volcano, called Lusi, has displaced 10,000 families and has cost Indonesia over $3.7 billion to date.
What caused the mud volcano to start erupting is interesting – and up for debate. Initially, PT Lapindo Brantas, an oil and gas company drilling just over 200 yards away when the volcano started to erupt from its drilling rig on May 28, 2006, was blamed, and it was ordered to pay nearly $500 million. However, on May 27, 2006, a major earthquake struck and devastated Yogyakarta on Java (5,782 dead, 36,299 injured, 1.5 million homeless) and this too could have contributed to the mud volcano’s eruption. Skeptics point out that the epicenter of this earthquake was nearly 200 miles away and the earthquake was only 2 on the Richter scale in Sidoarjo. Recent rulings regarding the eruption have called it a “natural disaster”.
Given the amount of the damage, and the impact on the people and the economy and businesses, the issue of who, or what, is responsible is being hotly debated. The disaster is being investigated by local, national and international experts.
There are tons of interesting articles about this on the web – I’ll list a few below. What I highly encourage you to check out are the satellite photos of the region that are available – to visually see the amount of mud that has overtaken this area – up to 60 feet deep in some areas, is remarkable.
These satellite images show the difference in the area around the eruption between October 2005 and August 2006 (scroll down on the page to see the images).
This is the most recent photo of the area. Click on the earlier images to see the spread of the mud over time. It’s scary.
A slideshow of images from Greenpeace. The first image is striking.
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC)Astronomers in Germany have announced the discovery of a newborn planet in a distant solar system.
Johny Setiawan, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, discovered the extrasolar planet using the 2.2m Max-Planck-Gesellschaft telescope in Chile. He said it’s the first and so far earliest example of a planet observed during its formation process.
Planets are thought to form out of the disks of dust and gas swirling around newly created stars. The new planet, catalogued as TW Hydrae b, is situated in the constellation Hydrae some 180 light years from Earth, and is only about 8 or so million years old – a mere baby in terms of planetary formation. In fact, the star it circles isn’t much further along in its own development.
"This demonstrates that planets can form within 10 million years, before the disk has been dissipated by stellar winds and radiation," the researchers explained in a recent issue of the journal Nature.
The gaseous newborn’s mass is about 10 times that of Jupiter in our own solar system, and orbits at a distance of about 4 million miles, just inside the inner edge of its star’s disk of gas and dust.
"The discovery shows that what we always call as 'protoplanetary' disks are indeed protoplanetary; they form planets," Setiawan said. "There are many 'protoplanetary' disks detected around young stars, but no planets so far have been detected within such young systems."