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Mysterious methane detections on Mars baffle NASA scientists – Sky News

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Detections of methane on Mars have excited scientists because, on Earth, the gas is often produced by microbes – its presence could indicate that similar life was, or is, present on the red planet.

There are potential geological processes that could produce methane too, but even before identifying the source of the gas on Mars, scientists have been trying to solve another mystery.

The detections of methane aren’t consistent. Some instruments, such as on NASA’s Curiosity rover, have repeatedly detected the gas above the surface of the Gale Crater. Another, on ESA’s (European Space Agency) orbiter, hasn’t found any traces of methane higher up in the Martian atmosphere.

Aboard the Curiosity rover is an instrument called the Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) which has detected varying amounts of methane – from less than one-half part per billion “equivalent to about a pinch of salt diluted in an Olympic-size swimming pool” to up to 20 parts per billion.

The issue isn’t be one of design or malfunction.

The TLS instrument is so precise it has been licensed for use in industrial systems and fighter aircraft to monitor for gas levels.

ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is “designed to be the gold standard for measuring methane and other gases over the whole planet”, explained NASA, and yet it – contrary to all expectations – was finding no methane at all.

More on Nasa

“When the Trace Gas Orbiter came on board in 2016, I was fully expecting the orbiter team to report that there’s a small amount of methane everywhere on Mars,” said Chris Webster, who leads the TLS instrument for NASA.

“When the European team announced that it saw no methane, I was definitely shocked,” he added.

The TLS team checked to see if the rover was releasing the gas itself somehow.

“We looked at correlations with the pointing of the rover, the ground, the crushing of rocks, the wheel degradation -you name it. I cannot overstate the effort the team has put into looking at every little detail to make sure those measurements are correct, and they are.”

Image:
The gas was detected by NASA’s Curiosity rover. Pic: NASA

At this point, John Moores, a scientist from York University in Toronto proposed a counter-intuitive solution.

“I took what some of my colleagues are calling a very Canadian view of this, in the sense that I asked the question: ‘What if Curiosity and the Trace Gas Orbiter are both right?'” Moores said.

Working with the Curiosity team, Moores hypothesised that the discrepancy between the measurements came down to the time of day they were taken.

The methane blast was detected near to the planet's Gale Crater. Pic: NASA
Image:
The methane blast was detected near to the planet’s Gale Crater. Pic: NASA

The TLS, they realised, operates mostly at night when Curiosity’s other instruments are sleeping. As the Martian atmosphere is calm at night, any methane seeping up from the ground builds up near the surface.

The orbiter however depends on sunlight to pinpoint trace gases about 5km from the planet’s surface. As the atmosphere is more active during the day, any methane present would have been diluted to undetectable levels.

Experiments quickly confirmed that this was the case, but another mystery remained even beyond the origin of the methane: Why was it disappearing?

Mars is also known as the red planet
Image:
It remains unknown what is producing the methane on Mars

Methane is a stable molecule. Even without a protective atmosphere, it is expected to last for 300 years on Mars before solar radiation tears it apart.

If it is constantly seeping from all craters on the planet – something which researchers believe, as there is apparently nothing geologically unique about the Gale Crater – then there should be enough in the atmosphere for the orbiter to detect.

The researchers are now experimenting to see whether “very low-level electric discharges induced by dust in the Martian atmosphere could destroy methane, or whether abundant oxygen at the Martian surface quickly destroys methane before it can reach the upper atmosphere”.

“We need to determine whether there’s a faster destruction mechanism than normal to fully reconcile the data sets from the rover and the orbiter,” Webster said.

After that, the team can try and figure out where the methane is coming from.

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NASA’s Europa Clipper will fly on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy – The Verge

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NASA’s Europa Clipper will start its journey to Jupiter’s icy moon aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket built by SpaceX. NASA will pay SpaceX $178 million to launch the vehicle in October 2024.

The Europa Clipper got the green light from NASA in 2015. It will fly by the moon 45 times, providing researchers with a tantalizing look at the icy world, believed to have an ocean lurking under its icy crust. The Clipper is equipped with instruments that will help scientists figure out if the moon could support life.

For years, the Clipper was legally obligated to launch on NASA’s long-delayed Space Launch System (SLS). But with the SLS perpetually delayed and over budget, NASA has urged Congress to consider allowing the Europa Clipper to fly commercial. Switching to another vehicle could save up to $1 billion, NASA’s inspector general said in 2019.

NASA got permission to consider commercial alternatives to the SLS in the 2021 budget, and started officially looking for a commercial alternative soon after.

The SLS has powerful allies in Congress, who have kept the costly program alive for years, even as it blew past budgets and deadlines. The first flight of the SLS was originally supposed to happen in 2017. That mission — launching an uncrewed trip around the Moon — has since been pushed to November 2021, and keeping to that new schedule remains “highly unlikely” according to NASA’s Office of Inspector General, a watchdog agency.

SpaceX first launched its Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018, and started flying satellites in 2019. Earlier this year, NASA selected the rocket as the ride to space for two parts of a planned space station orbiting the Moon.

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Researchers Develop Genome Techniques to Analyze Adaptation of Cattle – AZoCleantech

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Jared Decker, a fourth-generation cattle farmer, has been aware of cattle suffering from health and productivity problems when they are moved from one location to another. The shift is from a region where they had spent generations to another place with a different climate, grass, or elevation.

Jared Decker is on a mission to help farmers learn more about what their cattle need to thrive. Image Credit: University of Missouri.

Decker, as a researcher at the University of Missouri, looks at the chances of using science to resolve this issue, thereby serving a dual purpose to enhance the cattle’s welfare and sealing the leak in an almost $50 billion industry in the United States.

When I joined MU in 2013, I moved cattle from a family farm in New Mexico to my farm here in Missouri. New Mexico is hot and dry, and Missouri is also hot but has much more humidity. The cattle certainly didn’t do as well as they did in New Mexico, and that spurred me to think about how we could give farmers more information about what their animals need to thrive.

Jared Decker, Associate Professor and Wurdack Chair, Animal Genetics, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources 

The study was published in the journal PLOS Genetics on July 23rd, 2021.

Decker and his research team have revealed the proof exposing the fact that cattle are losing their key environmental adaptations. The researchers regard this as a loss due to the lack of genetic information available to farmers.

After assessing the genetic materials dating back to the 1960s, the team determined particular DNA variations linked with adaptations that could someday be used to develop DNA tests for cattle. These tests could help educate the farmers regarding the adaptability of cattle from one environment or another.

We can see that, for example, historically cows in Colorado are likely to have adaptations that ease the stress on their hearts at high altitudes. But if you bring in bulls or semen from a different environment, the frequency of those beneficial adaptations is going to decrease. Over generations, that cow herd will lose advantages that would have been very useful to a farmer in Colorado.

Jared Decker, Associate Professor and Wurdack Chair, Animal Genetics, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, University of Missouri

The research team included then-doctoral student Troy Rowan who had examined 60 years’ worth of bovine DNA data from tests of cryo-preserved semen produced by cattle breed associations. They observed that, as time runs, the genes related to higher fertility and productivity increased as a result of careful selection by farmers. Also, many genes relating to environmental adaptations have decreased.

According to Decker, the farmers are not to be blamed as there are no affordable methods available at present to identify the suitability of cattle for a specific environment. The study also proposes easy-to-use cattle DNA tests that focus on the particular adaptations identified in the study.

Such adaptations include resistance to vasoconstriction, which is a process of blood vessel narrowing that takes place at high elevation and puts excessive stress on the heart. Also creating resistance to the toxin in the grass can result in vasoconstriction and tolerance for increased temperature or humidity. All these factors tend to decline over generations when the cattle are shifted from the associated surroundings.

Sometimes, natural and artificial selection are moving in the same direction, and other times there is a tug of war between them. Efficiency and productivity have vastly improved in the last 60 years, but environmental stressors are never going to go away. Farmers need to know more about the genetic makeup of their herd, not only for the short-term success of their farm, but for the success of future generations.

Jared Decker, Associate Professor and Wurdack Chair, Animal Genetics, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources

The first widely adopted genetic test for cattle was developed at the University of Missouri in 2007. Decker and Rowan are looking forward to giving further details of the development. Both the researchers grew up on farms with a desire to use research to help farmers to balance farm traditions of America with the requirement for eco-friendly business practices.

As a society, we must produce food more sustainably and be good environmental stewards. Making sure a cow’s genetics match their environment makes life better for cattle and helps farmers run efficient and productive operations. It’s a win-win,” concluded Decker.

Journal Reference:

Rowan, T. N., et al. (2021) Powerful detection of polygenic selection and evidence of environmental adaptation in US beef cattle. PLOS Genetics. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1009652.

Source: https://missouri.edu/

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'Eye of Sauron' volcano and other deep-sea structures discovered in underwater 'Mordor' – Livescience.com

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Researchers exploring the Indian Ocean have discovered the remains of a collapsed underwater volcano with an uncanny resemblance to the all-seeing “Eye of Sauron” from J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous fantasy series “The Lord of the Rings,” as well as two other seafloor structures named after places in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. 

The eye is actually an oval-shaped depression measuring 3.9 miles (6.2 kilometers) long by 3 miles (4.8 km) wide. Called a caldera, this giant divot is left over from the ancient collapse of a deep-sea volcano. The caldera is surrounded by a 984-foot-tall (300 meters) rim, giving the impression of eyelids, and an equally tall cone-shaped peak at the center, which looks like a pupil, according to The Conversation. The unusual structure is located 174 miles (280 km) southeast of Christmas Island ― an Australian external territory off mainland Australia ― at a depth of 10,170 feet (3,100 m).

A team of researchers discovered the structure while onboard the ocean research vessel Investigator, owned by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), on the 12th day of an expedition to Australia’s Indian Ocean Territories. The researchers used multibeam sonar to create 3D maps of the caldera and the surrounding seafloor.

Related: 5 colossal cones: Biggest volcanoes on Earth 

Like other calderas, this one formed when the peak of the original volcano collapsed, according to the researchers.

“The molten magma at the base of the volcano shifts upwards, leaving empty chambers [below],” chief scientist Tim O’Hara, senior curator at Museums Victoria in Australia, wrote in The Conversation. “The thin, solid crust on the surface of the dome then collapses, creating a large, crater-like structure.”

The area surrounding the volcanic crater is also home to two other noteworthy structures.

“Our volcanic ‘eye’ was not alone,” O’Hara wrote. “Further mapping to the south revealed a smaller sea mountain covered in numerous volcanic cones, and further still to the south was a larger, flat-topped seamount.”

Continuing the connection to Tolkien’s fantasy epic, the researchers named the cone-covered mountain Barad-dûr, after Sauron’s main stronghold, and the seamount Ered Lithui, after the Ash Mountains, both of which are found alongside the Eye of Sauron in the evil realm of Mordor. 

A map showing off the locations of all three features named after places in Mordor. (Image credit: 3D imagery courtesy of CSIRO/MNF, GSM)

The Ered Lithui seamount is part of a cluster of seamounts thought to date back about 100 million years, O’Hara wrote. The Ered Lithui seamount was once above the water’s surface, giving it its flat top, and it has gradually sunk to around 1.6 miles (2.6 km) below sea level.

Over millions of years, sand and sinking detritus — particulate matter, including plankton, excrement and other organic matter — have coated the seamount in a thick layer of sediment around 328 feet (100 m) deep. However, the caldera remains relatively uncovered, suggesting it may be significantly younger, O’Hara said. 

“This sedimentation rate should have smothered and partially hidden the caldera,” O’Hara wrote. It also “looks surprisingly intact for a structure that should be 100 million years old.”

This freshness suggests that the volcano was created, and subsequently collapsed, after the seamount began sinking into the ocean.

“It is possible that volcanoes have continued to sprout long after the original foundation,” O’Hara wrote. “Our restless Earth is never still.”

Originally published on Live Science.

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