In the last two decades, we have all grown accustomed to rovers exploring Mars. At least one rover has been active on the planet every day since January 4, 2004, when NASA’s Spirit rover landed in Gusev crater. Opportunity (2004) and Curiosity (2012) followed, each making unique journeys of discovery of their own. Perseverance (2021) is the latest and greatest of these robotic explorers, boasting a state-of-the-art in-situ resource utilization experiment to extract oxygen from the atmosphere, an accompanying helicopter to scout the path ahead, and a suite of unparalleled geology instruments. But what really sets Perseverance’s mission apart is that, for the first time, it is collecting samples of Martian rock to bring back to Earth.
As advanced as Perseverance’s science instruments are, nothing beats the ability to study samples up close in a laboratory here on Earth. So Perseverance is making a rock collection. It is taking samples as its journeys across Jezero Crater, and leaving caches of the samples for a future mission to pick up and return to Earth (sometime in the mid-2020s).
At least, that’s the plan. But space exploration is never simple. As routine as rover activity on Mars has become in recent years, the red planet never ceases to surprise mission planners. Earlier this month, Perseverance made its first attempt at collecting a sample in one of its 43 titanium sampling tubes. After drilling the sample core, the team was shocked to discover that the sample tube remained empty, and was nowhere to be found on the ground around the rover, nor in the drill hole.
It turns out the rock into which Perseverance had drill was far softer than previously imagined, and the rock merely crumbled into powder beneath the drill. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate told reporters “While this is not the ‘hole-in-one’ we hoped for, there is always risk with breaking new ground…I’m confident we have the right team working this, and we will persevere toward a solution to ensure future success.”
This week, that team is ready for a second attempt. Perseverance has positioned itself next to a new rock outcrop, nicknamed “Rochette.” Rochette is about 455 meters from the first sample site, at the top of a ridge named Citadelle. This outcrop has survived millennia of wind erosion, suggesting that it should withstand Perseverance’s drill more easily.
“There are potentially older rocks in the ‘South Séítah’ region ahead of us, so having this younger sample can help us reconstruct the whole timeline of Jezero,” said Vivian Sun, a mission’s scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The team is also making some changes to their sampling procedure this time around. Before attempting to take a sample of Rochette, Perseverance will use its robotic arm to ‘abrade’ the surface of the rock, and examine how it reacts. Then, during the sampling process, the rover’s Mastcam-Z camera will look inside the canister to make sure it is full before sealing it shut.
As for the ‘empty’ canister from the first sample attempt – Perseverance is going to hold onto it too for return to Earth – its has no rocks in it, but it does have a sample of the Martian atmosphere, which might be equally interesting to study.
This isn’t the first time Martian rock and soil has caused trouble for NASA’s robotic missions. Curiosity had to operate for a long time with a broken drill. The Phoenix lander found Martian soil “sticky” and challenging to work with back in 2008, and more recently, the InSight lander’s “mole,” which was supposed to drill two meters below ground to study the planet’s interior, was unable to dig more than a few dozen centimeters because the soil didn’t provide the expected friction.
These challenges are a frequent reminder that Mars truly is an entirely different planet, and the geology does not always act as we Earthlings expect. But with a little luck and some careful planning, Perseverance has a good chance at succeeding in taking a sample this week. In doing so, it will make the dream of a Mars sample return mission one step closer to reality.
This Canadian 'Dark Sky Highway' is a stargazer dream – The Weather Network
E.C. Manning Provincial Park is one of the most popular provincial parks in British Columbia.
Located in the heart of the Cascade Mountains, its climate and geography have combined to make this park a go-to destination for stargazers across the country.
The park is within a three-hour drive from either the Lower Mainland or the Okanagan, with the closest city being about 45 minutes away. Road trippers can get there using BC Highway 3, also known as the Crowsnest Highway, located along what has become known as the Dark Sky Highway, due to the limited light pollution.
Photo of the night sky captured along B.C.’s Dark Sky Highway. The five bright stars stretched out through the right-hand side of the image are part of the constellation Ursa Major, aka the Big Dipper. (Mia Gordon)
Every year, photographers from around the country come out here to get a good glimpse of the Milky Way and other incredible constellations, and now the Manning Resort and the park are working towards becoming a dark sky designation.
“That means it is a continued commitment to preserve and protect the night and the environment but more specifically the organisms that live in the park that rely on the night to hunt and navigate,” explained Manning Park Communications Manager Emma Schram.
Every year, the resort partners with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada for an Astronomy Weekend, where visitors can speak with experts, learn how to use a telescope, and even participate in yoga under the stars. This year’s event is taking place October 15-17, and while it is sold out, any time of year is the perfect time to go stargazing in the park.
Learn more about this stargazer’s dream destination in the video above.
Thumbnail image courtesy: Getty Images
Faces of 3 Egyptian mummies revealed for the first time – Editorials 99
New DNA sequencing technology is giving us a first glimpse at what ancient men looked like — before they were mummies.
Genetic researchers have revealed highly detailed three-dimensional renderings of the faces of three Egyptian men who lived more than 2,000 years ago, using DNA pulled from their mummified remains.
The digital reconstructions show the men at age 25, who were unearthed in the vicinity of the ancient Egyptian city of Abusir el-Meleq, in the south of Cairo. Scientists estimate the men were each buried sometime between 1380 B.C. and A.D. 425, Live Science has reported. Their DNA was previously sequenced in 2017 at the Max Planck institute in Germany — at the time, the first successful reconstruction of an Egyptian mummy’s genome in history.
Since then, researchers at Parabon NanoLabs in Reston, Virginia have used forensic DNA phenotyping to create 3D models of the men’s faces, a process by which genetic data is used to predict facial features and other physical characteristics of the sampled mummy.
“This is the first time comprehensive DNA phenotyping has been performed on human DNA of this age,” Parabon said in a statement.
The lab used a combination of efforts to reconstruct the faces. Some features, including skin and eye color, can be predicted via genetic markers in the individual’s genome, while others are measured through what’s left of their physical remains.
Parabon’s methods revealed that the men had light brown skin with dark eyes and hair, and that the men were more genetically similar to modern-day Mediterranean populations than that of Egypt today.
Their process had to account for the fact that human DNA degrades over time, and is likely to be contaminated by bacterial DNA. In this case, researchers use genetic commonalities between human populations to fill in the gaps of their mummy genome.
Researchers see that this process could eventually be used in contemporary forensics, in order to identify more recent remains of unknown individuals.
Parabon’s work in genetics has already been used to crack 175 cold cases, including nine solved using the methods described in the current study, they told Live Science.
Some animal species can survive successfully without sexual reproduction: study – CTV News
An international team of researchers have found that some animals can survive over very long periods of time — possibly millions of years — without sexual reproduction.
By studying a tiny beetle mite species, just one-fifth of a millimetre in size, scientists found that asexual reproduction can be successful in the long term.
The study authors note that until now, the survival of an animal species over a geologically long period of time without sexual reproduction was considered very unlikely, if not impossible.
Asexual reproduction involves one parent and produces offspring that are genetically identical to each other and the parent, while sexual reproduction involves two parents and produces offspring that are genetically unique.
Using the Oppiella nova beetle mite, an all-female species, researchers from the Universities of Cologne and Göttingen, the University in Lausanne in Switzerland and the University of Montpellier in France, demonstrated for the first time the so-called Meselson effect in animals.
According to the study, the Meselson effect is a characteristic trace in the genome of an organism that suggests “purely asexual reproduction.”
In the study, researchers looked at different populations of the Oppiella nova and the closely related, but sexually reproducing species, Oppiella subpectinata in Germany and sequenced their genomes. The study found that the sequencing of the Oppiella nova genomes showed the Meselson effect.
The findings were published Tuesday in peer-reviewed scientific journal PNAS.
Scientists had previously considered the Oppiella nova species an “ancient asexual scandal” as they couldn’t determine how the beetles were managing to reproduce without having sexual intercourse.
Initially, the study notes that biologists thought these beetles were hiding their acts of reproduction.
“There could be, for example, some kind of ‘cryptic’ sexual exchange that is not known. Or not yet known,” first author of the study Alexander Brandt of the University of Lausanne said in a press release.
“For example, very rarely a reproductive male could be produced after all — possibly even ‘by accident’,” he added.
However, the Oppiella nova beetle mite clones itself rather than reproducing, according to the study.
Researchers say the existence of ancient asexual animal species can be difficult to explain as asexual reproduction can seem “very disadvantageous” in the long term due to a lack of genetic diversity.
Biologists say there is typically an “evolutionary advantage” to having two different genomes that only a pair of parents can supply. Through sexual reproduction, this ensures a “constant ‘mixing’ of the two copies” of the genome in each of their cells.
This means that the two sets of genetic information remain very similar, but there are differences that allow organisms on earth to adapt over time, evolving characteristics that best suit the changing environment.
Researchers also found that it is possible for asexually reproducing species to introduce genetic variance into their genomes and thus adapt to their environment during evolution, despite producing genetic clones of themselves.
Scientists say that lack of “genome mixing” compared to sexual species causes the two genome copies of asexual animals to accumulate separate mutations and evolve independently over time.
While the survival rate of a species without sexual reproduction is quite rare, scientists conclude that it is not impossible.
“Our results clearly show that O. nova reproduces exclusively asexually. When it comes to understanding how evolution works without sex, these beetle mites could still provide a surprise or two,” Jens Bast, junior research group leader at the University of Cologne, said in the press release.
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