The Mars 2020 rover, which sets off for the Red Planet next year, will not only search for traces of ancient life, but pave the way for future human missions, NASA scientists said Friday as they unveiled the vehicle.
The rover has been constructed in a large, sterile room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, where its driving equipment was given its first successful test last week.
Shown to invited journalists on Friday, it is scheduled to leave Earth in July 2020 from Florida’s Cape Canaveral, becoming the fifth US rover to land on Mars seven months later in February.
“It’s designed to seek the signs of life, so we’re carrying a number of different instruments that will help us understand the geological and chemical context on the surface of Mars,” deputy mission leader Matt Wallace told AFP.
Among the devices on board the rover are 23 cameras, two “ears” that will allow it to listen to Martian winds, and lasers used for chemical analysis.
Approximately the size of a car, the rover is equipped with six wheels like its predecessor Curiosity, allowing it to traverse rocky terrain.
Speed is not a priority for the vehicle, which only has to cover around 200 yards per Martian day — approximately the same as a day on Earth.
Fueled by a miniature nuclear reactor, Mars 2020 has seven-foot-long articulated arms and a drill to crack open rock samples in locations scientists identify as potentially suitable for life.
– Ancient life –
“What we’re looking for is ancient microbial life — we’re talking about billions of years ago on Mars, when the planet was much more Earth-like,” said Wallace.
Back then, the Red Planet had warm surface water, a thicker atmosphere and a magnetic force around it, he explained.
“And so it was much more conducive to the types of simple single cell life that evolved here on Earth at that time,” Wallace said.
Once collected, the samples will be hermetically sealed in tubes by the rover.
The tubes will then be discarded on the planet’s surface, where they will lie until a future mission can transport them back to Earth.
“We are hoping to move fairly quickly. We’d like to see the next mission launched in 2026, which will get to Mars and pick up the samples, put them into a rocket and propel that sample into orbit around Mars,” said Wallace.
“The sample would then rendezvous with an orbiter and the orbiter would bring the sample back to the Earth.”
Samples should reach Earth “in the course of a decade or so,” he added.
– Human mission –
To maximize its chance of unearthing traces of ancient life, Mars 2020 will land in a long dried-up delta called Jezero.
The site, selected after years of scientific debate, is a crater that was once a 500-yard-deep lake.
It was formerly connected to a network of rivers that flowed some 3.5 to 3.9 billion years ago.
The crater measures just under 30 miles across, and experts hope it may have preserved ancient organic molecules.
The Mars 2020 mission also carries hopes for an even more ambitious target — a human mission to Mars.
“I think of it, really, as the first human precursor mission to Mars,” said Wallace.
Equipment on board “will allow us to make oxygen” that could one day be used both for humans to breathe, and to fuel the departure from Mars “for the return trip.”
The ambitions come as a new space race hots up, with Beijing increasingly vying to threaten US dominance.
China on Friday launched one of the world’s most powerful rockets in a major step forward for its own planned mission to Mars next year.
NASA’s Mars 2020 will remain active for at least one Martian year, which is around two years on Earth.
But Martian rovers have frequently exceeded their intended lifespans — its predecessor Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012 and is still trundling around the planet’s Mount Sharp region.
City of Vernon extends temporary patio permits for a full year – Vernon News – Castanet.net
The City of Vernon is extending temporary measures so businesses can use outdoor spaces in response to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The city created a temporary outdoor commercial use program this past summer, allowing businesses to expand patios into parking lots, sidewalks and parking stalls, so customers and staff could continue practising physical distancing.
With the extension, businesses can continue using the spaces in the downtown business improvement area until next fall. They will also be able to use single, on-street parking stalls to create pop-up patios or for retail uses during the warmer months, from March 1 to Oct. 31, 2021.
Businesses with liquor licences will be pre-approved to have licences extended into the temporary spaces.
“Through the temporary outdoor commercial use program, the city is helping our community maintain physical distancing,” Mayor Victor Cumming said in a press release. “This program extension will also help businesses continue to adapt as we head into the colder months and plan ahead for spring and summer.”
For information on the guidelines, visit vernon.ca/covid-19/.
NASA spacecraft collects up to 4.5 pounds of asteroid to be sent to Earth – Global News
A NASA spacecraft tucked more than two pounds of asteroid samples into a capsule for return to Earth after losing some of its precious loot because of a jammed lid, scientists said Thursday.
They won’t know the precise amount of the cosmic haul from asteroid Bennu, more than 200 million miles (322 million kilometres) away, until the capsule parachutes into the Utah desert in 2023.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do” to get the samples back safely, said lead scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona.
The spacecraft Osiris-Rex won’t depart Bennu’s neighbourhood until March at the earliest, when the asteroid and Earth are properly aligned.
Osiris-Rex collected so much material from Bennu’s rough surface on Oct. 20 that rocks got wedged in the rim of the container and jammed it open. Some of the samples were seen escaping into space, so flight controllers moved up the crucial stowing operation.
NASA spacecraft gets sample from nearby asteroid Bennu
Based on images, scientists believe Osiris-Rex grabbed 4 1/2 pounds (2 kilograms) of rubble, a full load. The minimum requirement had been 2 ounces (60 grams) — a handful or two.
“Just imagine a sack of flour at the grocery store,” Lauretta said of the initial haul.
But tens of grams of material were lost following the successful touch-and-go maneuver and again this week when the spacecraft’s robot arm moved to put the samples inside the capsule.
“Even though my heart breaks for the loss of sample, it turned out to be a pretty cool science experiment and we’re learning a lot,” Lauretta told reporters.
While collecting the samples, the container on the end of the robot arm pressed down nine to 19 inches (24 to 48 centimetres) during the six seconds of contact, indicating a sandy and flaky interior beneath the rough surface, Lauretta said.
The slow, tedious stowing operation took 36 hours. After each successful step, flight controllers cheered, saving the biggest and loudest response when the lid on the capsule finally was closed and latched, sealing the samples inside.
Space Talk: Asteroid mining
It will be September 2023 — seven years after Osiris-Rex rocketed from Cape Canaveral — before the samples arrive here.
Rich in carbon, the solar-orbiting Bennu is believed to hold the preserved building blocks of the solar system. Scientists said the remnants can help explain how our solar system’s planets formed billions of years ago and how life on Earth came to be. The samples also can help improve our odds, they said, if a doomsday rock heads our way.
Bennu — a black, roundish rock bigger than New York’s Empire State Building — could come dangerously close to Earth late in the next decade. The odds of a strike are 1-in-2,700. The good news is that while packing a punch, it won’t wipe out the home planet.
Japan, meanwhile, has retrieved samples from other asteroids twice in the past two decades, although just tiny amounts. The second batch is due to arrive in December.
© 2020 The Canadian Press
Man and dog: Ancient genetics study reveals complex history – FRANCE 24
Issued on: 29/10/2020 – 19:30Modified: 29/10/2020 – 19:28
Much of the diversity seen in modern dog populations was already present around the time the last Ice Age had ended 11,000 years ago, a global study of ancient DNA revealed Thursday.
The paper, published in Science, showed how our canine companions spread across the world with their masters, but also found intriguing periods when our shared history was decoupled.
A research team led by the Francis Crick Institute sequenced the genomes of 27 dogs, some of which lived nearly 11,000 years ago, across Europe, the Near East and Siberia.
They found that by this time, well before the domestication of any other animal, there were already at least five different types of dog with distinct genetic ancestries.
Pontus Skoglund of Crick’s Ancient Genomics laboratory, the paper’s senior author, said: “Some of the variation you see between dogs walking down the street today originated in the Ice Age.
“By the end of this period, dogs were already widespread across the northern hemisphere.”
He added this implied that the diversity arose far earlier, “way back in time, during the hunter gatherer Stone Age, the Paleolithic, way before agriculture.”
When and where dogs first diverged from wolves is a contentious matter — analyses of genetic data indicates a window of roughly 25,000-40,000 years ago.
The new paper doesn’t enter this vexed debate but does support the idea that, unlike other animals such as pigs which appear to have been domesticated in multiple locations over time, there is a “single origin” from wolves to dogs.
The scientists found that all dogs probably share a common ancestry “from a single ancient, now-extinct wolf population,” with limited gene flow from wolves since domestication but substantial dog-to-wolf gene flow.
– Convergent evolution –
By extracting and analyzing ancient DNA from skeletal material, the researchers were able to see evolutionary changes as they occurred thousands of years ago.
For instance, European dogs around four or five thousand years ago were highly diverse and appeared to originate from highly distinct populations from Near Eastern and Siberian dogs. But over time, this diversity was lost.
“Although the European dogs we see today come in such an extraordinary array of shapes and forms, genetically they derive from only a very narrow subset of the diversity that used to exist,” said the paper’s lead author Anders Bergstrom.
Evolutionary pathways between our two species have at times followed similar routes.
Humans, for example, have more copies than chimpanzees of a gene that creates a digestive enzyme called salivary amylase, which helps us break down high-starch diets.
Likewise, the paper demonstrated that early dogs carried extra copies of these genes compared to wolves, and this trend only increased over time as their diets adapted to agricultural life.
This builds on previous research that found Arctic sled dogs, like Inuits, have evolved similar metabolic pathways to allow them to process high-fat diets.
There have also been periods when our histories have not run in parallel — for example the loss of diversity that once existed in dogs in early Europe was caused by the spread of single invasive species, an event not mirrored in human migrations.
The field of ancient DNA study has revolutionized the study of our ancestors and researchers are hopeful it can do the same for dogs, our longest animal allies.
“Understanding the history of dogs teaches us not just about their history but also about our own history,” said Bergstrom.
© 2020 AFP
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