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Space News: NASA's Curiosity Rover finds patches of rock record erased, revealing clues – Lake County News

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A self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity rover taken on June 15, 2018, during the 2,082nd Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars. A Martian dust storm has reduced sunlight and visibility at the rover’s location in Gale Crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Today, Mars is a planet of extremes — it’s bitterly cold, has high radiation, and is bone-dry.

But billions of years ago, Mars was home to lake systems that could have sustained microbial life. As the planet’s climate changed, one such lake — in Mars’ Gale Crater — slowly dried out.

Scientists have new evidence that super salty water, or brines, seeped deep through the cracks, between grains of soil in the parched lake bottom and altered the clay mineral-rich layers beneath.

The findings published in the July 9 edition of the journal Science and led by the team in charge of the Chemistry and Mineralogy, or CheMin, instrument — aboard NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover — help add to the understanding of where the rock record preserved or destroyed evidence of Mars’ past and possible signs of ancient life.

“We used to think that once these layers of clay minerals formed at the bottom of the lake in Gale Crater, they stayed that way, preserving the moment in time they formed for billions of years,” said Tom Bristow, CheMin principal investigator and lead author of the paper at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “But later brines broke down these clay minerals in some places – essentially re-setting the rock record.”

The network of cracks in this Martian rock slab called “Old Soaker” may have formed from the drying of a mud layer more than three billion years ago. The view spans about three feet (90 centimeters) left-to-right and combines three images taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI, camera on the arm of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Mars: It goes on your permanent record

Mars has a treasure trove of incredibly ancient rocks and minerals compared with Earth. And with Gale Crater’s undisturbed layers of rocks, scientists knew it would be an excellent site to search for evidence of the planet’s history, and possibly life.

Using CheMin, scientists compared samples taken from two areas about a quarter-mile apart from a layer of mudstone deposited billions of years ago at the bottom of the lake at Gale Crater.

Surprisingly, in one area, about half the clay minerals they expected to find were missing. Instead, they found mudstones rich with iron oxides — minerals that give Mars its characteristic rusty red color.

Scientists knew the mudstones sampled were about the same age and started out the same – loaded with clays — in both areas studied.

So why then, as Curiosity explored the sedimentary clay deposits along Gale Crater did patches of clay minerals — and the evidence they preserve — “disappear”?

This evenly layered rock imaged in 2014 by the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows a pattern typical of a lake-floor sedimentary deposit near where flowing water entered a lake. Shallow and deep parts of an ancient Martian lake left different clues in mudstone formed from lakebed deposits. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Clays hold clues

Minerals are like a time capsule; they provide a record of what the environment was like at the time they formed. Clay minerals have water in their structure and are evidence that the soils and rocks that contain them came into contact with water at some point.

“Since the minerals we find on Mars also form in some locations on Earth, we can use what we know about how they form on Earth to tell us about how salty or acidic the waters on ancient Mars were,” said Liz Rampe, CheMin deputy principal investigator and co-author at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Previous work revealed that, while Gale Crater’s lakes were present and even after they dried out, groundwater moved below the surface, dissolving and transporting chemicals.

After they were deposited and buried, some mudstone pockets experienced different conditions and processes due to interactions with these waters that changed the mineralogy.

This process, known as “diagenesis,” often complicates or erases the soil’s previous history and writes a new one.

Diagenesis creates an underground environment that can support microbial life. In fact, some very unique habitats on Earth — in which microbes thrive — are known as “deep biospheres.”

“These are excellent places to look for evidence of ancient life and gauge habitability,” said John Grotzinger, CheMin co-investigator and co-author at Caltech in Pasadena, California. “Even though diagenesis may erase the signs of life in the original lake, it creates the chemical gradients necessary to support subsurface life, so we are really excited to have discovered this.”

By comparing the details of minerals from both samples, the team concluded that briny water filtering down through overlying sediment layers was responsible for the changes. Unlike the relatively freshwater lake present when the mudstones formed, the salty water is suspected to have come from later lakes that existed within an overall drier environment.

Scientists believe these results offer further evidence of the impacts of Mars’s climate change billions of years ago. They also provide more detailed information that is then used to guide the Curiosity rover’s investigations into the history of the Red Planet.

This information also will be utilized by NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover team as they evaluate and select rock samples for eventual return to Earth.

“We’ve learned something very important: there are some parts of the Martian rock record that aren’t so good at preserving evidence of the planet’s past and possible life,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity project scientist and co-author at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “The fortunate thing is we find both close together in Gale Crater, and can use mineralogy to tell which is which.”

Curiosity is in the initial phase of investigating the transition to a “sulfate-bearing unit,” or rocks thought to have formed while Mars’s climate dried out.

The mission is managed by JPL, a division of Caltech, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Colleagues in NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division at Johnson and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland also are authors on the paper, as well as other institutions working on Curiosity.

This Martian landscape includes the rocky landmark nicknamed “Knockfarril Hill” at center right and the edge of Vera Rubin Ridge, which runs along the top of the scene. The image was made from a mosaic captured by the Mast Camera aboard NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as it explored the “clay-bearing unit” on Feb. 3, 2019, during the 2,309th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

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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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