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Computers to Decide What to Tell Us in Search for Life on Mars – Lab Manager Magazine



Artist’s impression of the Rosalind Franklin Rover on Mars.

ESA/ATG medialab

NASA has stepped closer to allowing remote onboard computers to direct the search for life on other planets. Scientists from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center have announced first results from new intelligent systems, to be installed in space probes, capable of identifying geochemical signatures of life from rock samples. Allowing these intelligent systems to choose both what to analyse and what to tell us back on Earth will overcome severe limits on how information is transmitted over huge distances in the search for life from distant planets. The systems will debut on the 2022/23 ExoMars mission, before fuller implementation on more distant bodies in the Solar System. 

Presenting the work at the Goldschmidt Geochemistry conference, lead researcher Victoria Da Poian said, “This is a visionary step in space exploration. It means that over time we’ll have moved from the idea that humans are involved with nearly everything in space, to the idea that computers are equipped with intelligent systems, and they are trained to make some decisions and are able to transmit in priority the most interesting or time-critical information.”

Eric Lyness, software lead in the Planetary Environments Lab at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), emphasized the need to have smart instruments for planetary exploration: 

“It costs a lot of time and money to send the data back to Earth which means scientists can’t run as many experiments or analyze as many samples as they would like. By using AI to do an initial analysis of the data after it is collected but before it is sent back to Earth, NASA can optimize what we receive, which greatly increases the scientific value of space missions.”

Da Poian and Lyness (both at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center), have trained artificial intelligence systems to analyze hundreds of rock samples and thousands of experimental spectra from the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA), an instrument that will land on Mars within the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin Rover in 2023. MOMA is a state-of-the-art mass spectrometer-based instrument, capable of analyzing and identifying organic molecules in rocks samples. It will search for past or present life on the Martian surface and subsurface through analysis of rock samples. The system to be sent to Mars will still transmit most data back to Earth, but later systems for the outer solar system will be given autonomy to decide what information to return to Earth.

First results show that when the system’s neural network algorithm processes a spectrum from an unknown compound, this can be categorized with up to 94 percent accuracy and matched to previously seen samples with 87 percent accuracy. This will be further refined until being incorporated into the 2023 mission.

Victoria Da Poian continued:

“What we get from these unmanned missions is data, lots of it; and sending data over hundreds of millions of kilometers can be very challenging in different environments and extremely expensive; in other words, bandwidth is limited. We need to prioritize the volume of data we send back to Earth, but we also need to ensure that in doing that we don’t throw out vital information. This has led us to begin to develop smart algorithms which can for now help the scientists with their analysis of the sample and their decision-making process regarding subsequent operations, and as a longer-term objective, algorithms that will analyse the data itself, will adjust and tune the instruments to run next operations without the ground-in-the-loop, and will transmit home only the most interesting data.”

Related Article: What Will a Lab on Mars Be Like?

The team used the raw data from initial laboratory tests with an Earth-based MOMA instrument to train computers to recognize familiar patterns. When new raw data is received, the software tells the scientists what previously encountered samples match this new data.

Eric Lyness said:

“The mission will face severe time limits. When we will be operating on Mars, samples will only remain in the rover for at most a few weeks before the rover dumps the sample and moves to a new place to drill. So, if we need to retest a sample, we need to do it quickly, sometimes within 24 hours. In the future, as we move to explore the moons of Jupiter such as Europa, and of Saturn such as Enceladus and Titan, we will need real-time decisions to be made onsite. With these moons, it can take five to seven hours for a signal from Earth to reach the instruments, so this will not be like controlling a drone, with an instant response. We need to give the instruments the autonomy to make rapid decisions to reach our science goals on our behalf.”

Lyness commented: “When first gathered, the data produced by the MOMA life-searching instrument is difficult to interpret. It will not shout out, ‘I’ve found life here,’ but will give us probabilities which will need to be analyzed. These results will largely tell us about the geochemistry that the instruments find. We’re aiming for the system to give scientists directions, for example our system might say, ‘I’ve got 91 percent confidence that this sample corresponds to a real world sample and I’m 87 percent sure it is phospholipids, similar to a sample tested on July 24th, 2018 and here is what that data looked like.’ We’ll still need humans to interpret the findings, but the first filter will be the AI system.”

The researchers note that data is expensive to send back from Mars, and gets more expensive as landers get further from Earth. “Data from a rover on Mars can cost as much as 100,000 times as much as data on your cell phone, so we need to make those bits as scientifically valuable as possible,” said Lyness.

Commenting, Dr. Joel Davis (postdoctoral researcher in planetary geology at the Natural History Museum, London, who was not involved in this work) said: “One of the main challenges for planetary missions is getting the data back to Earth—it costs both time and money. On Mars, the travel time delay is around 20 minutes and this gets more the further you go out in the solar system. Given the finite lifespans of missions, scientists have to be very selective about the data they chose to bring back. These results certainly seem promising; having greater autonomy onboard spacecraft is one way of ensuring the usefulness of the data returned.”

The Goldschmidt conference thanks the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for their assistance in the preparation of this material. ExoMars is a joint European-Russian, European Space Agency-Roskosmos project. One of the central goals of the mission is to search for traces of past and present life. A key instrument is the Mars Organic Molecule Analyser (MOMA), which is a joint German-French-American investigation led by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen.

The Goldschmidt conference is the world’s main geochemistry conference, hosted by the Geochemical Society and the European Association of Geochemistry. Held annually, it covers such material as climate change, astrobiology, planetary and stellar development and conditions, chemistry of Earth materials, pollution, the undersea environment, volcanoes, and many other subjects. For 2020 the scheduled Hawaii congress was moved online, taking place from 21-26 June, see Future congresses are in Lyon, France (2021) and the rescheduled Hawaii congress (2022).

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Catch a comet by the tail: a bright streak in Island sky – Times Colonist



A recently discovered comet will grace the night sky over B.C. for the next couple of weeks, before disappearing again for thousands of years.

The Neowise comet, discovered in March by NASA’s Neowise infrared space telescope, reached its closest point to the sun on July 3, which caused the “frozen ice ball” to heat up and burn gas and dust off its surface. That has created a large debris tail as it moves through the solar system, said James Di Francesco, the director of Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Saanich.

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“It’s a rare delight to see,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve had a comet as nice as this for the last 20 years or so.”

Di Francesco said the comet will be visible for a few weeks. It can be seen with the naked eye, but binoculars will make for better visuals, he said.

The comet is getting brighter as it nears Earth, and it will reach its closest point on July 23, when it will be about 103 million kilometres away.

It will begin to fade as it moves farther away, Di Francesco said.

“Right now, people are seeing it pretty clearly just looking out their front doors,” he said.

In the coming week, the comet will be visible in the northeast — to the left of the bright light of Venus — just before dawn. Around July 14, it will become visible close to the horizon looking northwest around dusk.

Di Francesco said the best way to see the comet is to find a dark place with an unobstructed view of the horizon.

Once the comet heads back to the outer solar system, it will take about 7,000 years to complete its path and return to Earth’s proximity, “so enjoy it while you can,” Di Francesco said.

Scientists involved in the NASA mission that discovered the comet said it’s about five kilometres across. Its nucleus is covered with sooty material dating back to the origin of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have already caught a glimpse of the comet, said by NASA to be the brightest since the mid-1990s for stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere.

Astronaut Bob Behnken shared a photo of the comet on social media late Thursday, showing central Asia in the background and the space station in the foreground.

“Stars, cities, spaceships, and a comet!” he tweeted from orbit.

— With files from The Associated Press

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NASA pens new rules to prevent us from contaminating the Moon and Mars – The Weather Network



NASA has a strict set of guidelines for sending missions out into space to prevent Earth microbes from contaminating the planets and moons that we visit. Now, the agency has revised those rules to clear the way for human missions to the Moon, and eventually Mars.

Science fiction has already taught us many lessons about the human exploration of space. Chief among those lessons is how we need to do everything we can to prevent some kind of harmful alien bacteria or organisms from being brought back to Earth.

On the flipside, however, is another crucial issue: to preserve the unique alien environments of our solar system – on the Moon, Mars, and other celestial bodies. To do this, we also need to prevent them from being contaminated by microbes that originate from Earth. That is one of the key points of the Outer Space Treaty – an international agreement for the fair and responsible use of space.

This is where NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection comes in. The sole concern for this part of the agency is the possibility of harmful biological contamination due to space exploration. Their rules and regulations cover both forward contamination (Earth microbes hitching a ride to another celestial body) and back contamination (returning spacecraft, or astronauts, or samples bringing alien microbes back to Earth).

This is an artist’s concept of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft approaching Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By pure biological necessity, we bring microbes with us, no matter what we do or where we go. Apparently, with NASA’s previous rules, this fact would prevent any living astronaut from ever setting foot on Mars. They would also impose restrictions on visiting anywhere on the Moon that could have frozen water ice.

With new missions to the Moon currently in the works, such as NASA’s Artemis program, and with ideas for future crewed missions to Mars, the agency realized they needed to revisit these guidelines.

Now, after going over those rules, they have released two new NASA Interim Directives (NIDs) this week.

These directives take into account what they’ve learned from nearly 20 years of continuous human habitation of the International Space Station, as well as decades of robotic exploration of the Moon and Mars, and even from their plans for the new Lunar Gateway station.

The first NID changes how we treat the surface of the Moon. Before this, visiting anywhere on the lunar surface required special consideration, because we now know that the Moon has pockets of water ice. The new NID states that these restrictions now only count for specific areas of the surface where these pockets could exist; notably the so-called Permanently Shadows Regions at the bottom of craters near the lunar poles, and the Apollo landing sites which already contain biological materials left behind by the astronauts. The rest of the lunar surface would be free from planetary protection restrictions.

Moon-base-1This artist’s rendition shows a base on the Moon. Credit: ESA

“We are enabling our important goal of sustainable exploration of the Moon while simultaneously safeguarding future science in the permanently shadowed regions,” Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a NASA press release. “These sites have immense scientific value in shaping our understanding of the history of our planet, the Moon and the solar system.”

The other NID updates the planetary protections in place for Mars. Before now, Mars had one of the most stringent sets of restrictions in place. Anything that would touch down on the surface needed to be almost completely sterilized before it would be allowed to launch. For landers and rovers with life-detection capabilities, such as the Viking landers or the new Perseverance rover, they would have to be even more thorough.

NASA-Perseverance-RoverThis artist’s rendition shows the Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA

Basically, there’s no sense in sending a robot to detect life on another planet if it only ends up detecting life that hitched a ride from Earth. To ensure that the search for extraterrestrial life is as honest and thorough as possible, we cannot bring anything with us.

The problem becomes: we can’t use the same sterilization methods with human astronauts as we do robotic explorers. So, if we are going to plan crewed missions to Mars, these rules have to change.

There’s one limitation to changing the rules, however. Even after over 40 years of exploring the surface of Mars, we still don’t know enough about it to develop a responsible set of restrictions.

“The challenge with Mars is that we simply don’t yet have enough information to know where it is we can go and where we shouldn’t go, and where we can go but we need to be more careful than other places,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said when the new NIDs were announced.

NASA Mars astronauts base roverA simulated base on Mars. Credit: NASA

NASA’s new Perseverance Rover is designed to search for signs that life existed on Mars in its distant past. It may even be able to tell us if there is life on the planet now (although in all likelihood, it would be microbes deep beneath the ground). Perseverance is currently scheduled to launch later this month, with a landing in Mars’ Jezero crater in February of 2021. So, once Perseverance arrives and begins its investigations, the science it collects will go into forming these new rules for human missions to Mars.


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Space mystery: Scientists spot 'unexpected class of astronomical objects' –



They can be everything from the leftovers of a supernova, a planetary nebular, or looking at something such a proto-planetary disc or star-forming galaxy from a certain angle.

They can also be a sign of a bug and may come about when there are bright sources from incorrectly-calibrated telescopes.

However, the newly discovered circles do not appear to be explained by any of those more traditional objects.

Instead, the researchers note, they “appear to be a new class of astronomical object”.

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