Life on Mars?

A new study by NASA finds that if life has ever existed on Mars, it had to have been underground.

Ever since clay minerals were initially discovered on Mars in 2005, scientists have thought warm and wet conditions which could have possibly supported life may have existed. This is because clay is formed when stone and water interact with one another.

However, researchers analyzing orbiter data from over 350 areas of the planet’s surface have found that the type of clay which is formed underground is abundant on Mars, while the type of clay which is formed above the surface is quite rare. Conditions on the red planet are not especially conducive to water above the planet’s surface.

From Universe Today:

But there’s a problem with Mars’ atmosphere – it is not thick enough now for water to be retained on Mars’ surface, and there is no scientific consensus that it was ever thick enough in the past to have allowed water to remain on the surface.
According to NASA, the study, which is published in the current issue of the journal Nature, backs up a hypothesis that warm water was present only on the planet’s surface for geologically short periods of time.

But don’t worry — this doesn’t rule out the possibility of life on the red planet.

NASA Hunts For New Asteroids

NASA said on Thursday it identified upwards of 90 percent of giant near-Earth asteroids, including ones that are as big as the one which was said to have killed the last generation of dinosaurs eons ago. Amy Mainzer of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said:

“We know now where most of them are and where most of them are going. That really has reduced our risk…Fewer does not mean none…There are still tens of thousands out there that are left to find.”

The fresh census comes from data from NASA’s sky-mapping spacecraft called Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, that launched in 2009 to seek out near-Earth objects, stars, galaxies and other cosmic targets.

Unlike sky surveys that have come before, WISE has extremely sensitive instruments which can pick out both light and dark objects, allowing it to receive the most accurate count yet of near-Earth asteroids. The spacecraft only takes a small sample of asteroids of different sizes before estimating how great the population would end up being.

For the very largest asteroids – greater than 3,300 feet across – NASA says 911 of the 981 that are said to exist have been found.

Former estimates put the number of medium-sized asteroids at 35,000, however WISE data indicate there are some 19,500 between 330 and 3,300 feet wide. Only about 5,200 were found and scientists said that there still is tons of work left to identify the potentially hazardous ones.

Alas, WISE isn’t yet totally equipped to detect the more than a million smallest asteroids which could cause damage should they impact planet Earth.

By locating the majority of the giant asteroids, NASA has gone ahead and fulfilled a goal that was set by Congress in 1998. More recently however, the space agency was asked to find 90 percent of asteroids which are at least 460 feet in diameter – just a little smaller than the Superdome in New Orleans – come the year 2020.

Asteroid Time!

According to NASA a newly discovered asteroid will experience a close encounter with Earth this coming Monday; but worry not – it will not spell disaster.

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office contends that the small space rock – called 2011 MD – will pass 7,500 miles over Earth’s surface over the southern Atlantic Ocean.

While it will come close, it is not a distance record holder. Earlier in the year, a tiny asteroid flew by even closer; that is within 3,400 miles of the Blue Planet.

The last asteroid measures 33 feet long and was discovered with New Mexican telescopes. Scientists say that asteroids this size can sail past Earth every six years.

The asteroid will briefly be seen rather brightly; well, that is bright enough such that medium-size telescopes may be able to spot it.

Spirit AWOL

The chances of ever again hearing from the stuck Mars rover, Spirit, is becoming more and more slim now that it has officially failed to respond to calls from Earth, repeatedly.

SpiritHowever, NASA will make one last-ditch attempt to communicate with Spirit. If there continues to be no contact in the next month, the space agency will scale back its listening campaign for Spirit and focus on its healthy companion, Opportunity.

The solar-powered rover got stuck in a sand trap in 2009 during a routine drive. Despite efforts to break free, it remained stuck and could not tilt toward the sun as the Martian winter was ’round the corner. It ultimately went into hibernation, lacking an adequate amount of energy to reach its solar panels.

Engineers had expected Spirit to wake up once there was maximum sunlight where it’s trapped. But that point came and went earlier this month with no response.

Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis said:

“I would be surprised if we re-establish communication — happy but surprised…It’s been so long.”

Ground controllers are attempting to page Spirit over a range of frequencies and at various times during the day in the event its internal clock stopped working and it loses track of time. They also are commanding the rover to turn on its backup radio transmitter in case the central one is dead.

At some point, NASA will have to declare Spirit lost if there’s no word. When that happens, efforts will be reduced to sporadic listening for it through the end of the year, Callas said.

Both Opportunity and Spirit parachuted to polar sides of planet Mars in 2004. They worked together, beyond their original, three-month mission during which they discovered geologic evidence of water on the red planet.

While Spirit’s odometer stayed stuck at 4.8 miles, Opportunity ceased to explore the rim of Santa Maria crater on Mars and is currently rolling toward another crater. So far it has racked up 16.6 miles.

Jim Bell, an astronomer from Arizona State University said the loss of communication came at the worst possible time because Spirit was doing valuable science while it was immobile.

Bell said:

“It’s disappointing if we have, in fact, lost the mission…But it’s the best kind of disappointment you can have. We had a phenomenal adventure with that rover.”

Thunderstorms and Antimatter

Thunderstorms are able to shoot beams of antimatter into space; beams that are so intense they may be seen by spacecraft thousands of miles away.

Matter is made of subatomic particles such as protons and electrons. Whereas, antimatter is made of particles that have the same spins and masses as their counterparts though with opposite charges and magnetic properties.

Radiation detectors, recently, on NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope lighted up for roughly 30 milliseconds with the characteristic signature of positrons, the antimatter counterparts of electrons.

Scientists were able to trace this burst of concentrated radiation back to a lightning flash over Namibia in North Africa, some 3,000 miles away from the Earth-orbiting telescope, which was passing above Egypt at the time.

Steven Cummer of Duke University said:

“This is a fundamental new discovery about how our planet works…The idea that any planet has thunderstorms that can create antimatter and launch it into space is something out of science fiction. The fact that our own planet is doing it is truly amazing.”

It is already common knowledge that thunderstorms emit gamma rays, (the most energetic form of light), and that gamma rays may create positrons via the process of pair formation.

When a gamma ray that has the right amount of energy interacts with an air atom, energy from the gamma ray becomes converted into matter, one positron and one electron. Scientists, though, wouldn’t have been surprised to see a few positrons accompanying any intense gamma ray burst. The lightning flash detected by the Fermi, however, appeared to have produced about 100 trillion positrons.

This planet constantly gets bombarded by radiation from the sun, as well as cosmic rays from distant however violent events, like powerful supernovae.

Considering the amount of positrons in the beam that was detected by the Fermi, the thunderstorm was briefly creating more radiation in the form of positrons and gamma rays than what hits actually hits this planet’s atmosphere from all other cosmic sources combined.

Duke’s Cummer added:

“We really don’t understand a lot of the details about how lighting works…gives us a very, very important clue as to what’s happening.”

Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey

Veteran Vegetarian Beatle Paul McCartney, always outspoken about animal rights has been making noise in defense of the innocent monkeys used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in experiments to determine the effect of space travel on human beings.

Paul wrote in a letter to NASA:

“I believe NASA has the ingenuity to investigate the health effects of space travel without confining and experimenting on animals as was done in the old days. It would be terribly disappointing if in our zeal to explore new frontiers and to learn about the fascinating universe where we live we began to regress in our treatment of the animals with whom we share this planet.”

Now don’t get the mop head wrong. Sir Paul has always been a big proponent of space exploration, hence Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. Knocking NASA is something new to the legend. In the past, Paul has even performed for the crew of STS-114 and even teamed up with NASA to broadcast Beatles music into outer space.

But when it comes to monkeys this Beatle is twisting and shouting over animal cruelty!

Flying on the Sun

First, man-kind was bedazzled to walk on the moon. Now, we could be flying on the sun; on the sun’s energy, that is. Think I’m crazy? Well, let me explain:

It simply does not make reasonable business sense, physics sense, or otherwise, to try and fly an airplane on solar power.

Not yet, anyhow.

With the state of technology, and given how relatively young the solar sector is – such an endeavor would be considered impracticable by today’s standards – forget 2003, when Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, the co-founders of technology firm Solar Impulse, announced that they would be designing a solar-powered aircraft to fly around the world.

It would be a statement about global dependence on fossil fuels and the untapped promise of blossoming green technologies. The Swiss pilot-entrepreneurs were on a dream of “perpetual flight”: a plane that could climb to 9,000 feet and fly on the sun’s energy by day, while descending below cloud cover to lower altitudes, where it would cruise on its stored battery power by night.

A long shot to say the least. Well, seven years of interesting innovation later, the 70-person team at Solar Impulse is nearing its goal:

Borschberg said:

“We were intrigued by this notion of perpetual flight…we wanted to be totally independent of any fuel…forget hybrid planes, or the biofuels fixating most of the sustainable aviation sector today; Piccard and Borschberg are purists. No fuel, no CO2, no pollution. It could fly almost forever, assuming good weather…”

By November of last year, test pilot Markus Scherdel, formerly of DLR German Aerospace, the NASA of Germany, if yo will, was climbing into the cockpit of the completed prototype to taxi down the Dübendorf runway for the very first time. And soon after that, Scherde was back in the cockpit, this time guiding the plane as it shot up into the air for a series of successful “flea-hop” mini-flights over the tarmac.

Seeing Saturn into Tomorrow

NASA decided to give its Cassini spacecraft mission a 6 ½-year life extension to continue exploring Saturn and its moons.

Cassini was launched in 1997 and first arrived at Saturn in 2004 after flying by Earth, Venus and Jupiter. It carried the Huygens probe on board, which it sent to the surface of the moon Titan in December 2004. The mission was originally slated to end in 2008, but got its first reprieve with 27 months of additional funding to study the planet during its equinox – that is when the sun is directly above the planet’s equator, which happens only once every 15 Earth years.

The spacecraft has captured some of the most stunning images ever seen of the solar system, and space enthusiasts everywhere were dreading the mission’s end. With the Cassini’s new lease, those images will continue blowing our minds into Saturn’s summer solstice. Cool!

Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini Imaging Team said:

“Cassini has been an adventure of a lifetime, an extraordinary exploration of the most enchanting place in all the solar system…It is a very happy day for us, knowing that Cassini lives and the adventure continues.”

Cassini has already traveled 2.6 billion miles, and captured 210,000 images, and it is still in remarkably good shape. In the next seven years, it will orbit the planet 155 more times and complete 54 flybys of Titan and 11 flybys of the moon, Enceladus. It will dive between Saturn and its iconic rings, gathering more data on the planet’s magnetosphere.

Bob Pappalardo, Cassini project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press release:

“The extension presents a unique opportunity to follow seasonal changes of an outer planet system all the way from its winter to its summer…Some of Cassini’s most exciting discoveries still lie ahead.”

One of the mysteries Cassini could help solve is the source of the jets emanating from Enceladus. Scientists suspect that they are fed by a subsurface ocean that could possibly be a haven for life. Wow!

Bob Mitchell, Cassini program manager at JPL, said in a press release:

“This extension is important because there is so much still to be learned at Saturn…The planet is full of secrets, and it doesn’t give them up easily.”

The Coldest Summer Ever To Happen During a Warm Winter

Anthony Watts runs a Web site that has become the most popular portal for climate news and opinions of interest to people aiming to rebut insistent claims that humans are poised to disrupt the climate. James E. Hansen of
NASA has long been the most prominent scientist advocating sharp and prompt cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases to avoid a climatic calamity.
A few days ago, a conjunction happened when these two men essentially agreed on something: that the planet — despite a lot of very cold patches — is actually unusually warm.
On his nongovernmental Web site, Dr. Hansen posted “If It’s That Warm, How Come It’s So Damned Cold?”
Mr. Watts posted a piece in what he called “the weather is not climate department,” highlighting satellite measurements showing that January, and particularly Jan. 13, were unusually warm (for the 30-year satellite period).
Some critics said this was simply Mr. Watts’s trying to cover for his earlier posts on unusual cold and to appear moderate despite all the charges that global warming is an outright joke.
Andrew C. Revkin,global warming skeptic wrote in the New York Times:

But to my mind, given the depth of the gulf between the perception of climate held by many people and the scientific realities, this is a moment of accord worth noting.

Pain in the Asteroid

Russia says that it is considering sending a spacecraft to knock a large asteroid off of its path and keep it from colliding with Earth.

Deep Impact posterFamous Russian Rocket scientist, Dr. Professor Anatoly Perminov, said the space agency will hold a meeting soon to assess a mission to Apophis, and it plans to invite NASA, the European Space Agency, the Chinese space agency and others to join the project once it is finalized.

When the 270-meter (885-foot) asteroid was first discovered in 2004, astronomers estimated the chances of it smashing into Earth, on its first fly-by, in 2029 were as high as 1-in-37. Other studies ruled out the possibility of an impact in 2029, when the asteroid is expected to come no closer than 18,300 miles (29,450 kilometers) above the planet’s surface, but they indicated a small possibility of a hit on subsequent encounters.

In October, NASA lowered the odds that Apophis could hit Earth in 2036 from a 1-in-45,000 to 1-in-250,000. NASA said that another close encounter in 2068 will involve a 1-in-330,000 chance of impact.

Some scientists have proposed sending a probe to circle around a dangerous asteroid in order to change its trajectory. Others suggested sending a spacecraft to collide with the asteroid and alter the momentum, or even using nuclear weapons against it.

Perminov said:
“Calculations show that it’s possible to create a special purpose spacecraft within the time we have, which would help avoid the collision without destroying it (the asteroid) and without detonating any nuclear charges. The threat of collision can be averted.”

“People’s lives are at stake. We should pay several hundred million dollars and build a system that would allow to prevent a collision, rather than sit and wait for it to happen and kill hundreds of thousands of people.”

We cannot help but be reminded of the Hollywood action films “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon,” which both featured space missions scrambling to avoid catastrophic collisions. In both movies the space crews used nuclear bombs to prevent collisions.