A University of Alberta scientist will soon have an out-of-this-world experience.
Chris Herd has been chosen for a key role in NASA’s Mars 2020 mission.
This will mark the first time a rover is sent to collect samples from the planet, with hopes of them being returned through a future mission.
Herd won’t actually go to Mars, but will be one of 10 experts who will help ensure samples collected by the rover will give insights to the planet’s geological history.
“My interest in Mars goes back a long time. In fact, I was 13 years old when I decided that I wanted to work on rocks from Mars.”
“I guess you can say that I had a life-long goal to work on these Mars rocks,” Herd said.
The rover will land on the planet Feb. 18, 2021. It will seek signs of past microbial life and characterize the planet’s climate and geology. It will be the first rover to ever carry a drill for coring samples from Martian rocks and soil.
NASA puts Mars 2020 rover design to the test
“The rocks that we really want are three-and-half or four-billion years old, from sediments that were laid down by water under conditions that we know life could of survived.”
“We are really looking for evidence of life,” Herd said.
“The main driver for this mission is going with the right instruments, interrogating these rocks, in this case, in an area that was a crater lake. So an area that was filled with water and a river flowed into it and the river deposited sediments in the bottom of the lake on what’s called a delta.”
“The delta sediments became rock and are still there, that was three-and-half, four-billion years ago, we think approximately when that happened, and the rocks are still there for us to go and interrogate.
“So the whole idea is that any life that was living in the lake or that was living up in the area that was drained by the rivers would be carried in and preserved as rocks.”
The rover is car-sized, weighing about 2,260 pounds, and is about 10 feet long, nine feet wide and seven feet tall.
Collecting samples and bringing them back will be a multi-stage process. First, they will drill for the samples and later, another rover will be sent to space to collect them, and then they will be brought back to Earth.
“It will come back, probably no earlier than 2031. There are 31 samples that can be collected. They will be about 10 centimetres long and a couple centimetres across.”
Herd compared this mission to when Apollo samples were collected.
“This is the first step in bringing samples from Mars, to do what the Apollo samples did for our understanding of the moon. Those samples are still being worked on today by researchers all around the world.”
Herd said the Mars will be a legacy for future generations.
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Mammoths, Yukon horses alive 1000s of years longer: study – CTV News
A new study analyzing soil samples and DNA from Canada’s permafrost has found evidence that woolly mammoths and Yukon wild horses may have survived thousands of years longer than previously thought.
The paper, published in the journal Nature Communications, compiled a 30,000-year DNA record of past environments, based on cored permafrost sediments taken from the Klondike region of central Yukon.
The researchers, who hail from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., the University of Alberta, the American Museum of Natural History and the Yukon government, say in a news release that their analysis reveals mammoths and horses were already in steep decline prior to the climatic instability of the Pleistocene-Holocene transition between 11,000 and 14,000 years ago, during which a number of large species such as mammoths, mastodons and sabre-toothed cats disappeared.
However, the researchers say mammoths and horses didn’t immediately disappear as a result of overhunting by humans as previously believed.
Instead, they say the DNA evidence shows both the woolly mammoth and North American horse were around until as recently as 5,000 years ago during the mid-Holocene — the epoch humans currently live in, which began about 11,000 years ago.
The study builds on previous research done by McMaster scientists, who in 2020 reported that woolly mammoths and the North American horse were likely in the Yukon about 9,700 years ago.
“The rich data provides a unique window into the population dynamics of megafauna and nuances the discussion around their extinction through more subtle reconstructions of past ecosystems,” said Hendrik Poinar, an evolutionary geneticist and lead author on the paper, who also serves as director of the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre.
Using tiny soil samples containing billions of microscopic genomic sequences from animal and plant species, as well as DNA capture-enrichment technology developed at McMaster, the researchers were able to reconstruct ancient ecosystems at different points in time during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition.
The researchers say the Yukon environment continued to experience massive change throughout the early Holocene, with formerly rich grasslands known as the “Mammoth Steppe” becoming overrun by shrubs and mosses.
Due in part to a lack of megafaunal “ecological engineers” such as large grazing herds of mammoths, horses and bison, grasslands no longer prosper in northern North America, according to a news release on the study.
“Now that we have these technologies, we realize how much life-history information is stored in permafrost,” said Tyler Murchie, a postdoctoral researcher in McMaster’s department of anthropology and a lead author of the study.
“The amount of genetic data in permafrost is quite enormous and really allows for a scale of ecosystem and evolutionary reconstruction that is unparalleled with other methods to date.”
Co-author Ross MacPhee of the American Museum of Natural History added that while “mammoths are gone forever, horses are not.”
“The horse that lived in the Yukon 5,000 years ago is directly related to the horse species we have today, Equus caballus. Biologically, this makes the horse a native North American mammal, and it should be treated as such.”
Meanwhile, the researchers caution that permafrost is at risk of being lost forever as the Arctic warms, stressing the need to gather and archive more samples.
Chinese rover investigates 'cube' on far side of the moon – CBC News
A photograph of a cube-like object captured by a Chinese rover on the far side of the moon has fanned speculation over what it could be.
The Yutu-2 caught an image of what seems like a large cubic object on the horizon about 80 metres from its location, said Our Space, a Chinese government science website, citing the rover’s last log on Dec. 3.
The solar-powered Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit” in Chinese, will cover the distance of 80 metres in two to three lunar days, according to Our Space, or two to three Earth months. The robotic rover has been operating in the Von Karman Crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin since its deployment in January 2019.
The mission was a historic first, with no other nation having landed on the far side of the moon until then. With the moon tidally locked to Earth — rotating at the same speed as it orbits our planet — most of its “dark side” is never visible to those on Earth.
Comet Leonard will be visible this December before vanishing forever – CTV News
There is a new comet in town, and December is your only chance to see it before disappears forever. Astronomers say that Comet Leonard is our best and brightest comet to see in 2021.
The comet was first discovered in January by astronomer Greg Leonard. The celestial object has likely spent the last 35,000 years traveling toward the sun, according to Sky & Telescope, and once it makes a close pass of our star on January 3, we won’t be seeing the comet again.
As the comet nears the sun, it brightens, which is why the weeks leading up to this event make the comet easier to see.
It’s also an ultrafast comet, blazing through the inner solar system at 158,084 miles per hour (71 kilometres per second), but it will still appear like a slow-moving object due to its distance from Earth, according to EarthSky.
Comet Leonard will make it closest approach to Earth on December 12, coming within 21 million miles (34 million kilometres) of our planet. Then, it will sweep by Venus on December 18.
The comet will be visible in the skies of both the Northern and Southern hemispheres this month.
It’s difficult to predict how well we may be able to see a comet, but you”ll probably need binoculars to spot this one, according to NASA. Keep an eye out for an object that looks like a fuzzy star.
“In the first couple of weeks of December, Comet Leonard can be found in the east before sunrise, passing between Arcturus and the handle of the Big Dipper,” the agency shared in a post.
“It approaches the horizon right around the time of its closest approach to Earth, meaning it’ll likely be brighter but more challenging to observe. It then switches over to being an evening object after around Dec. 14th, for just a little while after the Sun sets — as it begins its long haul outward from the Sun again, progressively fading in brightness.”
As comets near the sun, these giant iceballs begin to shed some of their material, which forms a halo, or coma, around the object.
Dust and gas stream behind comets to form their extremely long tails. Most comets originate from the icy edge of our solar system and only become visible to us as they travel through the inner solar system, where Earth is located, during their long orbits of the sun.
It’s possible that Comet Leonard will be visible to skywatchers looking with the naked eye, but if you’re worried about missing this once-in-a-lifetime viewing experience, The Virtual Telescope Project will be sharing a livestream from its observatory in Rome.
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