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Ancient life may be just one possible explanation for Mars rover's latest discovery – CTV News

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In the search for life beyond Earth, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been on a nearly decade-long mission to determine if Mars was ever habitable for living organisms.

A new analysis of sediment samples collected by the rover revealed the presence of carbon — and the possible existence of ancient life on the red planet is just one potential explanation for why it may be there.

Carbon is the foundation for all of life on Earth, and the carbon cycle is the natural process of recycling carbon atoms. On our home planet, carbon atoms go through a cycle as they travel from the atmosphere to the ground and back to the atmosphere. Most of our carbon is in rocks and sediment and the rest is in the global ocean, atmosphere and organisms, according to NOAA, or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That’s why carbon atoms — with their cycle of recycling — are tracers of biological activity on Earth. So they could be used to help researchers determine if life existed on ancient Mars.

When these atoms are measured inside another substance, like Martian sediment, they can shed light on a planet’s carbon cycle, no matter when it occurred.

Learning more about the origin of this newly detected Martian carbon could also reveal the process of carbon cycling on Mars.

A study detailing these findings published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

SECRETS IN THE SEDIMENT

Curiosity landed in Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. The 154.5-kilometre crater, named for Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale, was probably formed by a meteor impact between 3.5 billion and 3.8 billion years ago. The large cavity likely once held a lake, and now it includes a mountain called Mount Sharp. The crater also includes layers of exposed ancient rock.

For a closer look, the rover drilled to collect samples of sediment across the crater between August 2012 and July 2021. Curiosity then heated these 24 powder samples to around 1,562 degrees Fahrenheit (850 degrees Celsius) in order to separate elements. This caused the samples to release methane, which was then analyzed by another instrument in the rover’s arsenal to show the presence of stable carbon isotopes, or carbon atoms.

Some of the samples were depleted in carbon while others were enriched. Carbon has two stable isotopes, measured as either carbon 12 or carbon 13.

“The samples extremely depleted in carbon 13 are a little like samples from Australia taken from sediment that was 2.7 billion years old,” said Christopher H. House, lead study author and professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, in a statement.

“Those samples were caused by biological activity when methane was consumed by ancient microbial mats, but we can’t necessarily say that on Mars because it’s a planet that may have formed out of different materials and processes than Earth.”

In lakes on Earth, microbes like to grow in big colonies that essentially form mats just under the surface of the water.

THREE POSSIBLE CARBON ORIGINS

The varied measurements of these carbon atoms could suggest three very different things about ancient Mars. The origin of the carbon is likely due to cosmic dust, ultraviolet degradation of carbon dioxide, or the ultraviolet degradation of biologically produced methane.

“All three of these scenarios are unconventional, unlike processes common on Earth,” according to the researchers.

The first scenario involves our entire solar system passing through a galactic dust cloud, something that occurs every 100 million years, according to House. The particle-heavy cloud could trigger cooling events on rocky planets.

“It doesn’t deposit a lot of dust,” House said. “It is hard to see any of these deposition events in the Earth record.”

But it’s possible that during an event like this, the cosmic dust cloud would have lowered temperatures on ancient Mars, which may have had liquid water. This could have caused glaciers to form on Mars, leaving a layer of dust on top of the ice. When the ice melted, the layer of sediment including carbon would have remained. While it’s entirely possible, there is little evidence for glaciers in Gale Crater and the study authors said it would require further research.

The second scenario involves the conversion of carbon dioxide on Mars into organic compounds, such as formaldehyde, due to ultraviolet radiation. That hypothesis also requires additional research.

The third way this carbon was produced has possible biological roots.

If this kind of depleted carbon measurement was made on Earth, it would show that microbes were consuming biologically produced methane. While Curiosity has previously detected methane on Mars, researchers can only guess if there were once large plumes of methane being released from beneath the surface of Mars. If this was the case and there were microbes on the Martian surface, they would have consumed this methane.

It’s also possible that the methane interacted with ultraviolet light, leaving a trace of carbon on the Martian surface.

MORE DRILLING ON THE HORIZON

The Curiosity rover will be returning to the site where it collected the majority of the samples in about a month, which will allow for another chance to analyze sediment from this intriguing location.

“This research accomplished a long-standing goal for Mars exploration,” House said. “To measure different carbon isotopes — one of the most important geology tools — from sediment on another habitable world, and it does so by looking at nine years of exploration.”

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NASA's InSight Mars lander has taken its final selfie. Here it is – ZDNet

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InSight’s Final Selfie.


Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s InSight Mars lander has sent back its last selfie of its dust-covered solar panels and deck, in an image taken on its 1,211th ‘sol’ or Martian day of the mission on April 24. 

Insight has been roaming the red planet for the past 3.5 years, capturing images and data that allowed scientists to approximate its crust and core, and refine models of how planets evolved from dust circling the Sun. 

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Insight’s scientific mission is set to conclude in summer after which it will run out of power. The lander is solar-powered, but dust covering the seven-feet wide solar panels has reduced its production capacity from around 5,000 watt-hours per sol to 500 watt-hours per sol. Once these panels generated power equivalent to running an electric oven for 40 minutes, they now can only power one for 10 minutes. The lander is equipped with two 25 amp-hour lithium-ion rechargeable batteries for energy storage. 

SEE: NASA’s Mars helicopter just took these remarkable photos of the rover’s landing gear

With those constraints, even taking a selfie requires some calculation to stay within the spacecraft’s power budget. The selfie arm will now go into the “retirement pose”, according to NASA.    

“The arm needs to move several times in order to capture a full selfie. Because InSight’s dusty solar panels are producing less power, the team will soon put the lander’s robotic arm in its resting position (called the “retirement pose”) for the last time in May of 2022,” NASA JPL said

InSight launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 5, 2018 and landed on Mars on November 26, 2018, six minutes after hitting the the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 mph (19,800 kilometers per hour), according to NASA. It was the eighth landing on Mars in human history. 

Dust has played a significant role in the InSight lander’s capability to continue the mission. An epic dust storm on Mars in 2018 is believed to have been behind the demise of NASA’s Opportunity rover. A similar storm could have threatened InSight’s mission, too. The threat from dust is two-fold: dust storms obscure available sunlight, while dust directly on the solar panels reduce their capacity to absorb sunlight.   

In September, 2021, on its 1,000th sol of the mission, InSight measured a “marsquake” with a magnitude of 4.2, which helped scientists see what’s happening beneath Mars’ surface. 

Located on the dark side of Mars at the time, dust on the solar panels was already restricting their power output. NASA used Insight’s robotic arm to sprinkle sand near one solar panel, hoping wind gusts would make the granules sweep off some of the dust. The plan worked.

SEE: NASA’s Mars lander is running out of power. Here’s what happens next

Then on January 7, 2022, InSight went into safe mode after a major dust storm obscured sunlight from its solar panels. But by that stage, performing the ‘sand sweep’ technique had become difficult because of reduced available energy. InSight’s engineers were hoping a whirlwind would clear dust from the panels and had restricted the use of science instruments. By February 15, the solar panels’ output levels had returned to pre-storm levels. 

InSight’s onboard computers for command and data handling are derived from NASA’s 2014 Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and its 2011 Moon Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. The system has two redundant computers. Its core is a radiation-hardened 115.5 MHz CPU with a PowerPC 750 architecture called RAD 750 that was made by BAE Systems.

Its flight software is written in C and C++ on the VxWorks real-time operating system, which monitors the spacecraft’s health, checks for commands to execute, and handles communications and controls. It also checks commands for faults and handles corrective steps when it detects irregularities. 

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An animation of the last selfie.


Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Boeing Starliner capsule nears completion of pivotal test flight to orbit – Financial Post

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The new Boeing Starliner capsule was due to descend back to Earth on Wednesday from its first uncrewed journey to the International Space Station (ISS), completing a high-stakes test flight as NASA’s next vehicle for carrying humans to orbit.

Less than a week after its launch from the Cape Canaveral U.S. Space Force Base in Florida, the CST-100 Starliner was scheduled to autonomously undock from the space station at 2:36 p.m. EDT (1836 GMT) to embark on a five-hour-plus return flight.

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If all goes as planned, the mission finale will come with the gumdrop-shaped craft making a fiery atmospheric re-entry followed by an airbag-cushioned parachute landing on the desert floor near White Sands, New Mexico at 6:49 p.m. PDT (2249 GMT).

Starliner was lofted to orbit last Thursday atop an Atlas V rocket furnished by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance and achieved its main objective, a rendezvous with the ISS, despite four of its multiple onboard thrusters malfunctioning along the way.

Boeing engineers also had to improvise a workaround for a thermal control defect during the final approach of the capsule to the space station, orbiting some 270 miles (430 kilometers) above Earth.

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But NASA and Boeing officials said none of the problems encountered so far should preclude Starliner from safely returning, and they chalked up such snafus to the learning process of developing a new spacecraft.

A successful mission would move the Starliner, beset by repeated delays and costly engineering setbacks, a major step closer to providing NASA with a second reliable avenue for ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.

Since resuming crewed flights to orbit from American soil in 2020, nine years after the space shuttle program ended, the U.S. space agency has had to rely solely on Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules from billionaire Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX.

Previously the only other option for reaching the orbiting laboratory was by hitching rides aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, an alternative currently less attractive in light of heightened U.S.-Russian tensions over the war in Ukraine.

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Much is also on the line for Boeing, as the Chicago-based company scrambles to climb out of successive crises in its jetliner business and space-defense unit. The Starliner program alone has cost the company nearly $600 million over the past 2 1/2 years.

An ill-fated first orbital test flight of Starliner in late 2019 nearly ended with the vehicle’s loss following a software glitch that effectively foiled the spacecraft’s ability to reach the space station.

Subsequent problems with Starliner’s propulsion system, supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne, led Boeing to scrub a second attempt to launch the capsule last summer.

Starliner remained grounded for nine more months while the two companies sparred over what caused fuel valves to stick shut and which firm was responsible for fixing them.

The do-over test mission winding up on Wednesday could pave the way for Starliner to fly its first astronaut crew to the space station as early as the fall, NASA has said.

The orbiting outpost is currently home to a crew of three U.S. NASA astronauts, an Italian astronaut from the European Space Agency and three Russian cosmonauts. (Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bradley Perrett)

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To Counter China, US, Japan Launch Bid to Put First Japanese Astronaut on Moon – HT Tech

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The US and Japan agreed to work to put the first Japanese astronaut on the moon, accompanied by an American astronaut, as the longtime allies develop a partnership aimed at countering China.

The US and Japan agreed to work to put the first Japanese astronaut on the moon, accompanied by an American astronaut, as the longtime allies develop a partnership aimed at countering China.

The two countries said in a joint statement they’d collaborate on human and robotic moon missions “including a shared ambition to see a future Japanese astronaut on the lunar surface,” with a goal of signing an implementation agreement this year. 

Also read: Looking for a smartphone? To check mobile finder click here.

Following a meeting Monday in Tokyo between President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the countries also said they “are committed to a Japanese astronaut opportunity on the Gateway, a human outpost in the lunar vicinity, as part of expanding Artemis collaboration.” 

The joint lunar exploration development ties into the Artemis project, a US-led effort to return astronauts to the moon and eventually send humans to Mars.

US-Japanese space cooperation “is taking off, looking toward the moon and to Mars,” Biden said Monday at a press conference with Kishida.

“I’m excited about the work we will do together on the Gateway Station around the moon and look forward to the first Japanese astronaut joining us in the mission to the lunar surface, under the Artemis program,” he added.

The US and Japan are seeking to work more closely on space exploration after NASA officials warned of growing tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Monday’s news comes amid the race to start extracting potentially hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of resources on the moon and elsewhere.

The moon may contain large amounts of helium-3, an isotope potentially useful as an alternative to uranium for nuclear power plants because it’s not radioactive. Experts believe 5,000 tons of coal could be replaced by about three tablespoons of helium-3. 

The geopolitics of space mirrors the competition between the US and its allies against China and Russia. The world’s top superpowers have been struggling to agree upon a common set of rules to govern the next generation of space activity. 

Japan and South Korea are among 19 countries that have agreed to support the Artemis Accords, a non-legally binding set of principles for exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond.

But China and Russia have led opposition to the accords. They are jointly promoting an alternative project on the moon they say is open to all other countries: the International Lunar Research Station. 

Japan itself has one of the world’s most advanced space programs, and in 2020 the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency succeeded in bringing back material from an asteroid using the unmanned Hayabusa2 probe. 

About a dozen Japanese nationals have experienced space travel, putting the country roughly even with China, Germany and France, but far behind the US and Russia in the global rankings. The country’s space budget jumped by more than 20% to about 450 billion yen ($3.5 billion) last year. 

The lack of cooperation between the US and China on space exploration is particularly dangerous in an era where the cosmos are becoming more crowded, and billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are increasingly launching satellites to delve into commercial opportunities.

Japanese e-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa spent time on the International Space Station last year in preparation for becoming the first private passenger on a planned trip around the moon on Musk’s SpaceX in 2023. No Japanese citizens have actually landed on the moon. 

NASA in April conducted tests for the launch of Artemis I, a fully robotic mission to the moon — the first since Apollo 17 in 1972. China is swiftly moving toward a goal of matching US capabilities. China is the only country to operate its own space station, and last year became only the second nation after the US to land a rover on Mars.

US legislation first passed in 2011 prevents NASA from most interactions with its Chinese counterpart, and the US has blocked China from taking part in the International Space Station — a move that simply prompted Beijing to build its own. 

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