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NASA Pulls Plug On InSight Lander’s Mars Mole – Forbes

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NASA has pulled the plug on its InSight lander’s Mars mole, more than two years after the lander touched down at Elysium Planitia. The German-built Mars mole heat probe could simply never penetrate the hard exterior surface of its landing site in order to make the kind of measurements necessary to give planetary scientists the first real clues as to the makeup of the Martian interior.

For nearly two years, the InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport’s mole probe has been attempting to burrow into the Martian surface to take the planet’s internal temperature, says NASA. But the soil’s unexpected tendency to clump deprived the spike-like mole of the friction it needs to hammer itself to a sufficient depth, the team notes.

Part of the spacecraft’s Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), the mole was intended to be a self-hammering probe that would burrow down to almost 16 feet (five meters) below Mars’ surface. This would have enabled planetary scientists to better understand whether Mars’ interior is radically different from Earth or our own Moon.

“We’ve given it everything we’ve got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible,” HP3’s principal investigator, Tilman Spohn of DLR said in a statement. “Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions that attempt to dig into the subsurface.”

The mole itself is a 16-inch-long spike designed to drag with it a ribbonlike tether that extends from the spacecraft, says NASA.  The idea was that Temperature sensors are embedded along the tether to measure the planet’s interior heat.

But InSight landed in an area with an unusually thick duricrust, or a layer of cemented soil, NASA reports.  Rather than being loose and sandlike, as expected, the dirt granules stick together, says the agency.

Unfortunately, to work properly, the mole needs friction from the soil in order to travel downward. Without it, says NASA, recoil from its self-hammering action causes it to simply bounce in place.  Paradoxically, it’s loose soil, not this cement-like duricrust that InSight has encountered at its landing site, that would ideally provide the needed friction as it falls around the mole.

The landing site at Elysium Planitia, a broad, equatorial volcanic plain, was selected in part because it has so few visible rocks, implying few large subsurface rocks.  Designed to measure heat flowing from the planet once the mole has dug at least 10 feet deep, the mole is strong enough to nudge small rocks out of its way, says NASA.   

But after repeated attempts to aid the mole in its actions over a two year period using the spacecraft’s robotic arm in ways that it was never intended, the team realized that they were in a no-win situation.

Meanwhile, the rest of InSight’s instruments are functioning and taking data. In fact, NASA says that the mission intends to employ the robotic arm in burying the tether that conveys data and power between the lander and InSight’s seismometer, which has recorded more than 480 marsquakes. Burying it will help reduce temperature changes that have created cracking and popping sounds in seismic data, the team notes.

The InSight mission itself has been recently extended to late next year. Along with hunting for marsquakes, the lander hosts a radio experiment that is collecting data to reveal whether the planet’s core is liquid or solid, says NASA. And InSight’s weather sensors are capable of providing some of the most detailed meteorological data ever collected on Mars, says the agency. Together with weather instruments aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover and the Perseverance rover, which lands on Feb. 18th, the team says that the three spacecraft will create the first meteorological network on another planet.

Could the problem simply be an ordinary rock?

“We don’t know for sure, because we can’t see underground,” Spohn said in a statement.  “[But] there’s also the possibility that we’ve hit a rock.”

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Painstaking study of 'Little Foot' fossil sheds light on human origins – National Post

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Sophisticated scanning technology is revealing intriguing secrets about Little Foot, the remarkable fossil of an early human forerunner that inhabited South Africa 3.67 million years ago during a critical juncture in our evolutionary history.

Scientists said on Tuesday they examined key parts of the nearly complete and well-preserved fossil at Britain’s national synchrotron facility, Diamond Light Source. The scanning focused upon Little Foot’s cranial vault – the upper part of her braincase – and her lower jaw, or mandible.

The researchers gained insight not only into the biology of Little Foot’s species but also into the hardships that this individual, an adult female, encountered during her life.

Little Foot’s species blended ape-like and human-like traits and is considered a possible direct ancestor of humans. University of the Witwatersrand paleoanthropologist Ron Clarke, who unearthed the fossil in the 1990s in the Sterkfontein Caves northwest of Johannesburg and is a co-author of the new study, has identified the species as Australopithecus prometheus.

“In the cranial vault, we could identify the vascular canals in the spongious bone that are probably involved in brain thermoregulation – how the brain cools down,” said University of Cambridge paleoanthropologist Amélie Beaudet, who led the study published in the journal e-Life.

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“This is very interesting as we did not have much information about that system,” Beaudet added, noting that it likely played a key role in the threefold brain size increase from Australopithecus to modern humans.

Little Foot’s teeth also were revealing.

“The dental tissues are really well preserved. She was relatively old since her teeth are quite worn,” Beaudet said, though Little Foot’s precise age has not yet been determined.

The researchers spotted defects in the tooth enamel indicative of two childhood bouts of physiological stress such as disease or malnutrition.

“There is still a lot to learn about early hominin biology,” said study co-author Thomas Connolley, principal beamline scientist at Diamond, using a term encompassing modern humans and certain extinct members of the human evolutionary lineage. “Synchrotron X-ray imaging enables examination of fossil specimens in a similar way to a hospital X-ray CT-scan of a patient, but in much greater detail.”

Little Foot, whose moniker reflects the small foot bones that were among the first elements of the skeleton found, stood roughly 4-foot-3-inches (130 cm) tall. Little Foot has been compared in importance to the fossil called Lucy that is about 3.2 million years old and less complete.

Both are species of the genus Australopithecus but possessed different biological traits, just as modern humans and Neanderthals are species of the same genus – Homo – but had different characteristics. Lucy’s species is called Australopithecus afarensis.

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“Australopithecus could be the direct ancestor of Homo – humans – and we really need to learn more about the different species of Australopithecus to be able to decide which one would be the best candidate to be our direct ancestor,” Beaudet said.

Our own species, Homo sapiens, first appeared roughly 300,000 years ago.

The synchrotron findings build on previous research on Little Foot.

The species was able to walk fully upright, but had traits suggesting it also still climbed trees, perhaps sleeping there to avoid large predators. It had gorilla-like facial features and powerful hands for climbing. Its legs were longer than its arms, as in modern humans, making this the most-ancient hominin definitively known to have that trait.

“All previous Australopithecus skeletal remains have been partial and fragmentary,” Clarke said.

(Reporting by Will Dunham in Washington, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

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Painstaking study of 'Little Foot' fossil sheds light on human origins – The Telegram

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By Will Dunham

(Reuters) – Sophisticated scanning technology is revealing intriguing secrets about Little Foot, the remarkable fossil of an early human forerunner that inhabited South Africa 3.67 million years ago during a critical juncture in our evolutionary history.

Scientists said on Tuesday they examined key parts of the nearly complete and well-preserved fossil at Britain’s national synchrotron facility, Diamond Light Source. The scanning focused upon Little Foot’s cranial vault – the upper part of her braincase – and her lower jaw, or mandible.

The researchers gained insight not only into the biology of Little Foot’s species but also into the hardships that this individual, an adult female, encountered during her life.

Little Foot’s species blended ape-like and human-like traits and is considered a possible direct ancestor of humans. University of the Witwatersrand paleoanthropologist Ron Clarke, who unearthed the fossil in the 1990s in the Sterkfontein Caves northwest of Johannesburg and is a co-author of the new study, has identified the species as Australopithecus prometheus.

“In the cranial vault, we could identify the vascular canals in the spongious bone that are probably involved in brain thermoregulation – how the brain cools down,” said University of Cambridge paleoanthropologist Amélie Beaudet, who led the study published in the journal e-Life.

“This is very interesting as we did not have much information about that system,” Beaudet added, noting that it likely played a key role in the threefold brain size increase from Australopithecus to modern humans.

Little Foot’s teeth also were revealing.

“The dental tissues are really well preserved. She was relatively old since her teeth are quite worn,” Beaudet said, though Little Foot’s precise age has not yet been determined.

The researchers spotted defects in the tooth enamel indicative of two childhood bouts of physiological stress such as disease or malnutrition.

“There is still a lot to learn about early hominin biology,” said study co-author Thomas Connolley, principal beamline scientist at Diamond, using a term encompassing modern humans and certain extinct members of the human evolutionary lineage. “Synchrotron X-ray imaging enables examination of fossil specimens in a similar way to a hospital X-ray CT-scan of a patient, but in much greater detail.”

Little Foot, whose moniker reflects the small foot bones that were among the first elements of the skeleton found, stood roughly 4-foot-3-inches (130 cm) tall. Little Foot has been compared in importance to the fossil called Lucy that is about 3.2 million years old and less complete.

Both are species of the genus Australopithecus but possessed different biological traits, just as modern humans and Neanderthals are species of the same genus – Homo – but had different characteristics. Lucy’s species is called Australopithecus afarensis.

“Australopithecus could be the direct ancestor of Homo – humans – and we really need to learn more about the different species of Australopithecus to be able to decide which one would be the best candidate to be our direct ancestor,” Beaudet said.

Our own species, Homo sapiens, first appeared roughly 300,000 years ago.

The synchrotron findings build on previous research on Little Foot.

The species was able to walk fully upright, but had traits suggesting it also still climbed trees, perhaps sleeping there to avoid large predators. It had gorilla-like facial features and powerful hands for climbing. Its legs were longer than its arms, as in modern humans, making this the most-ancient hominin definitively known to have that trait.

“All previous Australopithecus skeletal remains have been partial and fragmentary,” Clarke said.

(Reporting by Will Dunham in Washington, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

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Boeing Starliner test flight postponed – FRANCE 24

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Issued on: 02/03/2021 – 02:28Modified: 02/03/2021 – 02:26

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Washington (AFP)

An unmanned test mission of Boeing’s Starliner space capsule, which is eventually to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, has had to be postponed, NASA said Monday.

The test, which had previously been postponed until early April, will suffer another delay, this time due to unprecedented cold temperatures in Texas that caused extensive power outages in the southern US state.

“We did lose time with the weather in Houston. We lost about a week of time,” said Steve Stich, the manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, during a press conference.

NASA is “continuing to evaluate options” for the new test date.

The Starliner’s first crewed flight is currently scheduled for September, Stich added.

During an initial test flight in December 2019, the Starliner capsule failed to dock at the ISS and returned to Earth prematurely — a setback for aerospace giant Boeing.

Since then, its program has fallen far behind SpaceX, the other company — owned by Tesla CEO Elon Musk — chosen by NASA to develop a vessel to transport astronauts to the ISS.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule already carried astronauts to the station in June and November 2020. Four other astronauts, including Frenchman Thomas Pesquet, will return to the ISS in April.

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