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Brock professor lands Mars mission role – CBC.ca

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When the Perseverance rover lands on Mars this week, Mariek Schmidt will be ready to search for signs of ancient life — albeit from millions of miles away.

The Brock University earth sciences professor is a participating scientist with the NASA Mars 2020 Mission scheduled to land at the red planet’s Jezero Crater on Thursday, Feb. 18. 

This will be Schmidt’s third Mars rover mission.

“I was very excited. I’ve always wanted to be a part of the mission and now I get to do it so it’s pretty cool,” Schmidt told CBC Hamilton.

“The most exciting part of it is the discovery, when you see something that’s unexpected. That’s part of the goal for now, to look for signs of potential life,” Schmidt said.

The average driving distance of the Curiosity rover — and its successor Perseverance — is about 100 metres per Sol, or one Martian day. Curiosity travelled just 20 kilometres over eight years. (CBC)

Supported by the Canadian Space Agency, Schmidt will represent Brock as the only scientist from a Canadian Institution. She is one of 13 participating scientists who were chosen for the role from 119 applicants.

Collect rock and soil samples

Perseverance will collect rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth by 2034. 

The rover is fitted with seven key instruments, each with their own team to facilitate their use. 

Perseverance will collect rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth by 2034. The rover is fitted with seven key instruments, each with their own team to facilitate their use. (CBC)

Participating scientists propose ways to use the instruments for their own research and data collection.

“The rover itself is not necessarily going to be able to detect life unless something really unusual is found like a macro fossil, something you can actually see with your eye,” Schmidt said.

“But more likely what is going to happen is that the scientists on the mission are then going to go and look at the geology, try to interpret the geology and then identify samples that might have indication of past life. So we’ll collect some samples from geologically promising places and then eventually those samples will be returned to earth.”

However, Schmidt cautioned, “It won’t be until we actually get samples back on earth that I think we’ll be able to really know whether or not life once existed on Mars.”

Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry

Schmidt will focus on using an instrument called the PIXL.

The Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) is an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer used to determine the fine scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials.

“It measures elemental compositions of very small spots (100 microns across) along a grid on the surface of a rock or soil,” Schmidt said.

Faculty of Mathematics and Science Dean Ejaz Ahmed is proud of Schmidt’s selection and her research. (CBC)

Understanding the composition of a rock is critical for determining mineralogy and understanding textures.

“I’ll be looking at dust on the surface of rocks,” Schmidt said. “I’ll be trying to remove the dust and understand how dust influences the chemistry that is measured in order to get at a dust-free rock composition.”

Schmidt said the PIXL is an improvement over similar instruments, “because it is able to deliver micro-texture information about the distribution of elements. The one downside is it takes a longer time to perform a scan.”

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter

Patience and perseverance are important on interplanetary missions. The average driving distance of the Curiosity rover — and its successor Perseverance — is about 100 metres per Sol, or one Martian day. Curiosity travelled just 20 kilometres over eight years.

An exciting upgrade in mobility for this mission is the inclusion of a drone called the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. Drone flights will allow advanced mapping capabilities of areas too challenging for the rover to reach. (CBC)

An exciting upgrade in mobility for this mission is the inclusion of a drone called the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. Drone flights will allow advanced mapping capabilities of areas too challenging for the rover to reach.

“The Perseverance rover is step one,” Schmidt said. “A different rover will need to fetch the samples collected by Perseverance. The samples will then need to be launched into orbit with another spacecraft to transport safely home.”

Schmidt said scientists will look to see if they can find basaltic glass samples on Mars to bring home for further analysis that could help prove whether life did, at one point, exist on the planet.

Advice to young, aspiring scientists

Schmidt has some words of advice for young and aspiring scientists.

“Science is more than memorizing facts. Science is knowing how to do problem solving and being creative,” she said.

“So for those students that are really interested in space, getting experience with math as well as art and writing can really help with being ready to do space science.”

Brock University’s mathematics and science Dean Ejaz Ahmed is proud of Schmidt’s selection and her research.

“Exploring new planets is a pinnacle of science, done under challenging circumstances and with the potential for remarkable rewards,” he said.

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A large asteroid known as Apophis zipped silently past the Earth – SlashGear

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On Friday, a large asteroid roughly the size of the Eiffel Tower zipped past the Earth. The asteroid posed no hazard to the Earth on this flyby as it was more than 40 times as far away from Earth as the moon. However, on April 13, 2029, Apophis will get much closer to the Earth.

Scientists considered this week’s flyby a dress rehearsal for 2029, when Apophis will get incredibly close to the Earth. That year, Apophis will get closer to the Earth than some of the highest-orbit satellites surrounding the planet. The asteroid measures 1120 feet wide and is made of rock, iron, and nickel.

Scientists believe it’s shaped roughly like a peanut and its near pass by the Earth on Friday gave them a closer opportunity to inspect the asteroid. Apophis was too far away to be seen by the naked eye so scientists used the NASA Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California and the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia to image the asteroid it flew by.

The planetary radar study was meant to give researchers a baseline for the significantly closer flyby in 2029. Apophis is expected to get as close as 19,800 miles to Earth on its next pass. Scientists say that Apophis has a very complicated spin state that sees the asteroid spinning and tumbling simultaneously.

Interestingly, during its closest approach in 2029, Apophis will be briefly visible by the naked eye over Western Australia. In that area, the asteroid will be as bright as the stars in the Big Dipper. Its closest pass to Earth will happen at 6 PM EDT on April 13, 2029. It won’t hit the Earth in 2029 or on its next pass in 2036. However, there is a slight chance the asteroid hit the Earth in 2068.

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This hot super-Earth has temperatures of 800°F and rivers of glowing lava – Digital Trends

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Artistic impression of the surface of the newly discovered hot super-Earth Gliese 486b. With a temperature of about 700 Kelvin (430 °C), the astronomers of the CARMENES collaboration expect a Venus-like hot and dry landscape interspersed with glowing lava rivers. Gliese 486b possible has a tenuous atmosphere.
Artistic impression of the surface of the newly discovered hot super-Earth Gliese 486b. With a temperature of about 700 Kelvin (430 °C), the astronomers of the CARMENES collaboration expect a Venus-like hot and dry landscape interspersed with glowing lava rivers. Gliese 486b possible has a tenuous atmosphere. RenderArea

No day or night, heat intense enough to melt lead, and glowing rivers of lava: This hellish landscape is a typical day on Gliese 486b, a recently discovered exoplanet orbiting the nearby star Gliese 486. The planet is rocky and around three times the mass of Earth, making it a type called a super-Earth. But it is so hot that the conditions there are quite different from what we’re used to.

The planet is so close to its star that a year there lasts only 1.5 Earth days. Though the star is fainter and cooler than our sun, the planet orbits just 1.5 million miles away and it is tidally locked, meaning one side of the planet always faces the star. This drives temperatures up even higher, reaching a surface temperature of 700 Kelvin (800 degrees Fahrenheit).

The researchers who made the discovery believe this means the planet would appear more like Venus than like Earth, with a hot and dry landscape and rivers of glowing lava. There is probably little atmosphere there, as the heat from the star would act to evaporate it away, but the planet’s gravity likely helps it to retain some atmosphere.

The potential existence of a thin but present atmosphere makes this planet an excellent candidate for research as it allows scientists to test their theories on atmospheric models for rocky planets. “The discovery of Gliese 486b was a stroke of luck,” said José A. Caballero of the Centro de Astrobiología in Spain, co-author of the paper, in a statement. “A hundred degrees hotter and the planet’s entire surface would be lava. Its atmosphere would consist of vaporized rocks. On the other hand, if Gliese 486b were a hundred degrees colder, it would have been unsuitable for follow-up observations.”

The researchers now want to use upcoming next-generation telescopes to study the planet further and to try to peer into its atmosphere to see its composition. “The proximity of this exoplanet is exciting because it will be possible to study it in more detail with powerful telescopes such as the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope and the future Extremely Large Telescopes,” said lead author Trifon Trifonov of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.

“We can hardly wait for the new telescopes to become available. The results will help us to understand how well rocky planets can hold their atmospheres, what they are made of, and how they influence the energy distribution on the planets.”

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In Oregon, Scientists Find a Virus Variant With a Worrying Mutation – Yahoo News

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Coronavirus testing at a Virginia Garcia clinic in Hillsboro, Ore., May 1, 2020. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

Scientists in Oregon have spotted a homegrown version of a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus that first surfaced in Britain — but now it’s combined with a mutation that may make the variant less susceptible to vaccines.

The researchers have so far found just a single case of this formidable combination, but genetic analysis suggested that the variant had been acquired in the community and did not arise in the patient.

“We didn’t import this from elsewhere in the world — it occurred spontaneously,” said Brian O’Roak, a geneticist at Oregon Health and Science University who led the work. He and his colleagues participate in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s effort to track variants, and they have deposited their results in databases shared by scientists.

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The variant originally identified in Britain, called B.1.1.7, has been spreading rapidly across the United States, and accounts for at least 2,500 cases in 46 states. This form of the virus is both more contagious and more deadly than the original version, and it is expected to account for most U.S. infections in a few weeks.

The new version that surfaced in Oregon has the same backbone, but also a mutation — E484K, or “Eek” — seen in variants of the virus circulating in South Africa, Brazil and New York City.

Lab studies and clinical trials in South Africa indicate that the Eek mutation renders the current vaccines less effective by blunting the body’s immune response. (The vaccines still work, but the findings are worrying enough that Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have begun testing new versions of their vaccines designed to defeat the variant found in South Africa.)

The B.1.1.7 variant with Eek also has emerged in Britain, designated as a “variant of concern” by scientists. But the virus identified in Oregon seems to have evolved independently, O’Roak said.

O’Roak and his colleagues found the variant among coronavirus samples collected by the Oregon State Public Health Lab across the state, including some from an outbreak in a health care setting. Of the 13 test results they analyzed, 10 turned out to be B.1.1.7 alone, and one the combination.

Other experts said the discovery was not surprising, because the Eek mutation has arisen in forms of the virus all over the world. But the mutation’s occurrence in B.1.1.7 is worth watching, they said.

In Britain, this version of the variant accounts for a small number of cases. But by the time the combination evolved there, B.1.1.7 had already spread through the country.

“We’re at the point where B.1.1.7 is just being introduced” into the United States, said Stacia Wyman, an expert in computational genomics at the University of California, Berkeley. “As it evolves, and as it slowly becomes the dominant thing, it could accumulate more mutations.”

Viral mutations may enhance or weaken one another. For example, the variants identified in South Africa and Brazil contain many of the same mutations, including Eek. But the Brazilian version has a mutation, K417N, that is not present in the version from South Africa.

In a study published Thursday in Nature, researchers compared antibody responses to all three variants of concern — the ones identified in Britain, South Africa and Brazil. Consistent with other studies, they found that the variant that pummeled South Africa is most resistant to antibodies produced by the immune system.

But the variant circulating in Brazil was not as resistant, even though it carried the Eek mutation. “If you have the second mutation, you don’t see as bad an effect,” said Michael Diamond, a viral immunologist at Washington University in St. Louis, who led the study.

It’s too early to say whether the variant in Oregon will behave like the ones in South Africa or Brazil. But the idea that other mutations could weaken Eek’s effect is “excellent news,” Wyman said.

Overall, she said, the Oregon finding reinforces the need for people to continue to take precautions, including wearing a mask, until a substantial portion of the population is immunized.

“People need to not freak out but to continue to be vigilant,” she said. “We can’t let down our guard yet while there’s still these more transmissible variants circulating.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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