MarsNews.com
February 15th, 2019

Archaeology On Mars – From The Fantastical To The Real

Rover and Pyramids on Mars GETTY

NASA’s Martian rover Opportunity breathed its last digital gasp this week. What was a busy scurrying robot picking over and investigating the Martian landscape is now a slowly decaying pile of metal and circuitry. That is to say, Opportunity has entered my world, the world of abandoned things that is archaeology.

Humans have been dreaming about Martian archaeology for well over a century now. When the Italian Astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli described seeing canali on the surface of the red planet in 1877, many in the English-speaking world began to speculate that Schiaparelli was referring to artificially constructed canals. Percival Lowell became the largest champion of this interpretation. In his 1895 book “Mars,” Lowell claimed that the canals of Mars had been built by a desperate alien race seeking to salvage what water they could from the planet’s melting ice caps.

Yet all along this journey, the Martian landscape has become populated by actual human-made objects. Fourteen separate missions from four different space agencies have littered the surface of the Mars with not only landers and rovers, but heat shields, parachutes, and an untold number of broken bits. As an archaeologist, I love broken bits.

The things that people make and leave behind tell a different story then written history. A physical examination of landing sites on Mars would reveal critical details about why some landers arrived safely while others crashed to never be heard from again. Even the crashed landers tell a story of human triumph and ingenuity. One day, an astronaut will walk up to the original Viking 1 lander and marvel at the accomplishments of their ancestors. The material heritage we are currently scattering across the Martian surface will stand for centuries to come as a symbol of what we as human beings can do.

February 7th, 2019

Rosalind Franklin: Mars rover named after DNA pioneer

The Rosalind Franklin rover is due to launch to Mars next year

The UK-assembled rover that will be sent to Mars in 2020 will bear the name of DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin.

The honour follows a public call for suggestions that drew nearly 36,000 responses from right across Europe.

Astronaut Tim Peake unveiled the name at the Airbus factory in Stevenage where the robot is being put together.

The six-wheeled vehicle will be equipped with instruments and a drill to search for evidence of past or present life on the Red Planet.

Giving the rover a name associated with a molecule fundamental to biology seems therefore to be wholly appropriate.

Rosalind Franklin played an integral role in the discovery of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid.

It was her X-ray images that allowed James Watson and Francis Crick to decipher its double-helix shape.

Franklin’s early death from ovarian cancer in 1958, aged just 37, meant she never received the recognition given to her male peers.

The attachment to the European Space Agency (Esa) rover will now see her name travel beyond Earth.

“In the last year of Rosalind’s life, I remember visiting her in hospital on the day when she was excited by the news of the [Soviet Sputnik satellite] – the very beginning of space exploration,” Franklin’s sister, Jenifer Glynn, said on Thursday.

“She could never have imagined that over 60 years later there would be a rover sent to Mars bearing her name, but somehow that makes this project even more special.”

January 17th, 2019

Op/Ed: The Anthropocene Is Coming to Mars

Universities participating in NASA’s Mars Ice Challenge try to devise innovative ways to drill for water on the Red Planet. (NASA Langley Advanced Concepts Lab/Analytical Mechanics Associates)

Astrobiologist Alberto Fairén of Cornell University and the Center of Astrobiology in Madrid, Spain, asks a provocative question in a paper published recently in EOS: How will our exploration of Mars change the Red Planet?

The term Anthropocene has been widely used for the current period in Earth’s geological history, in which human actions have had enough impact on the planet that we see a clear distinction from the previous period, the Holocene. The geological signatures of that transition include a variety of features such as the extinction of many animal and plant species, an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (resulting in global warming), deposition of plastic in sediments, movements of soil from mining, and the construction of highways, dams, and residential areas.

The Anthropocene as a geological epoch is not formally recognized, but has been widely used to indicate a period where humans majorly affect planet Earth, beginning sometime in the mid-20th century. Fairén suggests that the same nomenclature should be used for Mars, starting with the first human mission slated for the mid-21st century. The thinking is that with the arrival of the first humans, we will inevitably leave topographic changes such as buildings and excavations, especially when utilizing natural resources on Mars as currently envisioned by NASA. To some extent we already have made changes, considering all our abandoned or crashed spacecraft on the planet and the tracks from our rovers. But once we see the first astronaut bootprints in the Martian sands, the impact will be so significant that, according to Fairén, we ought to speak no longer of the Late Amazonian period on Mars, but of the Mars Anthropocene. Earth and Mars will then have a shared geological epoch.

December 6th, 2018

Meteorites from Mars Suffer a Velocity Boost Due to Material Pileup

A cartoon on the generation of Martian meteorites. – Tokyo Institute of Technology

One hundred and ninety-eight meteorites from Mars have been discovered on Earth as of Sep., 2017. Hypervelocity impacts on Mars have been a widely accepted mechanism that launches Martian rocks into the space. Petrographic analyses of the Martian meteorites have shown that they suffer relatively low peak pressure ranging from 30 to 50 GPa during impact ejection events. In contrast, shock physics tells us that a stronger shock compression higher than 50 GPa is required to accelerate materials up to the escape velocity of Mars (5 km/s). This contradiction between petrology and shock physics was the outstanding problem regarding the Martian meteorites’ launch.

he new discovery of late-stage acceleration has a wide range of implications not only for the Martian meteorites’ launch, but also for material exchange amongst planetary bodies (See Figure 1). Since microbes may survive the relatively weak shock compression, the late-stage acceleration could provide us with new insight into (Litho-)Panspermia. The researchers are planning to do a series of hypervelocity impact experiments to validate the numerically discovered new mechanism using a two-stage light gas gun installed at the Planetary Exploration Research Center, Chiba Institute of Technology, Japan.

November 29th, 2018

Opinion: Mars Beckons

Niv Bavarsky

The science and technology behind NASA’s latest space explorer to land on Mars are so awe-inducing that it’s hardly surprising when scientists commenting on the triumph drop their usual jargon to speak like excited schoolchildren.

“It’s nice and dirty; I like that,” was how Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator behind the InSight mission, reacted when, shortly after setting down Monday on the flat and featureless Martian plain known as the Elysium Planitia, the lander beamed back an image speckled with red dust. “This image is actually a really good argument for why you put a dust cover on a camera. Good choice, right?”

Unlike the [rovers], InSight — Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is meant to stay in one spot and deploy instruments to measure marsquakes (yes, on Earth they’re “earthquakes”) in order to learn about what’s going on in the innards of the planet. One gizmo will take Mars’s temperature by hammering itself 16 feet below the surface. Deploying the instruments alone is expected to take two months, and the entire mission is meant to last a Martian year, roughly two Earth years.

What for? A random sampling of comments from the public suggests not everyone is convinced that digging on Mars is money well spent. But the basic answer is that whether it’s practical or not, humans will continue to explore the heavens so long as the moon, Mars and the myriad celestial bodies beyond fire our imagination and curiosity. What happened in the earliest days of the universe? How were Earth and its fellow planets formed? And the question of questions: Is there life out there?

October 26th, 2018

Electricity in Martian dust storms helps to form perchlorates

A Martian dust devil winding its way along the Amazonis Planitia region of northern Mars in March 2012. (Photo: NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter)

The zip of electricity in Martian dust storms helps to form the huge amounts of perchlorate found in the planet’s soils, according to new research from Washington University in St. Louis.

It’s not lightning but another form of electrostatic discharge that packs the key punch in the planet-wide distribution of the reactive chemical, said Alian Wang, research professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in Arts & Sciences.

“We found a new mechanism that can be stimulated by a type of atmospheric event that’s unique to Mars and that occurs frequently, lasts a very long time and covers large areas of the planet — that is, dust storms and dust devils,” Wang said. “It explains the unique, high concentration of an important chemical in Martian soils and that is highly significant in the search for life on Mars.”

The new work is an experimental study that simulates Martian conditions in a laboratory chamber on Earth.

October 23rd, 2018

Mars could have enough molecular oxygen to support life, and scientists figured out where to find it

Mars as seen by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope on July 18, near its closest approach to Earth since 2003. (NASA / ESA / STScI)

Modern-day Mars may be more hospitable to oxygen-breathing life than previously thought.

A new study suggests that salty water at or near the surface of the red planet could contain enough dissolved O2 to support oxygen-breathing microbes, and even more complex organisms such as sponges.

“Nobody thought of Mars as a place where aerobic respiration would work because there is so little oxygen in the atmosphere,” said Vlada Stamenković, an Earth and planetary scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who led the work. “What we’re saying is it is possible that this planet that is so different from Earth could have given aerobic life a chance.”

As part of the report, Stamenković and his coauthors also identified which regions of Mars are most likely to contain brines with the greatest amounts of dissolved oxygen. This could help NASA and other space agencies plan where to send landers on future missions, they said.

The work was published Monday in Nature Geoscience.

September 24th, 2018

Ancient Mars Had Right Conditions For Underground Life, New Research Suggests

New research shows that ancient Mars likely had ample chemical energy to support the kinds of underground microbial colonies that exist on Earth. Credit: NASA

A new study shows evidence that ancient Mars probably had an ample supply of chemical energy for microbes to thrive underground.

“We showed, based on basic physics and chemistry calculations, that the ancient Martian subsurface likely had enough dissolved hydrogen to power a global subsurface biosphere,” said Jesse Tarnas, a graduate student at Brown University and lead author of a study published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters. “Conditions in this habitable zone would have been similar to places on Earth where underground life exists.”

Earth is home to what are known as subsurface lithotrophic microbial ecosystems — SliMEs for short. Lacking energy from sunlight, these subterranean microbes often get their energy by peeling electrons off of molecules in their surrounding environments. Dissolved molecular hydrogen is a great electron donor and is known to fuel SLiMEs on Earth.

This new study shows that radiolysis, a process through which radiation breaks water molecules into their constituent hydrogen and oxygen parts, would have created plenty of hydrogen in the ancient Martian subsurface. The researchers estimate that hydrogen concentrations in the crust around 4 billion years ago would have been in the range of concentrations that sustain plentiful microbes on Earth today.

The findings don’t mean that life definitely existed on ancient Mars, but they do suggest that if life did indeed get started, the Martian subsurface had the key ingredients to support it for hundreds of millions of years. The work also has implications for future Mars exploration, suggesting that areas where the ancient subsurface is exposed might be good places to look for evidence of past life.

July 25th, 2018

Mars Express Detects Liquid Water Hidden Under Planet’s South Pole

The European Space Agency (ESA)

Radar data collected by ESA’s Mars Express point to a pond of liquid water buried under layers of ice and dust in the south polar region of Mars.

Evidence for the Red Planet’s watery past is prevalent across its surface in the form of vast dried-out river valley networks and gigantic outflow channels clearly imaged by orbiting spacecraft. Orbiters, together with landers and rovers exploring the martian surface, also discovered minerals that can only form in the presence of liquid water.

But the climate has changed significantly over the course of the planet’s 4.6 billion year history and liquid water cannot exist on the surface today, so scientists are looking underground. Early results from the 15-year old Mars Express spacecraft already found that water-ice exists at the planet’s poles and is also buried in layers interspersed with dust.

The presence of liquid water at the base of the polar ice caps has long been suspected; after all, from studies on Earth, it is well known that the melting point of water decreases under the pressure of an overlying glacier. Moreover, the presence of salts on Mars could further reduce the melting point of water and keep the water liquid even at below-freezing temperatures.

But until now evidence from the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding instrument, MARSIS, the first radar sounder ever to orbit another planet, remained inconclusive.

It has taken the persistence of scientists working with this subsurface-probing instrument to develop new techniques in order to collect as much high-resolution data as possible to confirm their exciting conclusion.

June 18th, 2018

Pushing the limit: could cyanobacteria terraform Mars?

Cyanobacteria could be used to render the atmospheres of other planets suitable for human life.
Credit: DETLEV VAN RAVENSWAAY/GETTY IMAGES

The bacteria that 3.5 billion years ago were largely responsible for the creation of a breathable atmosphere on Earth could be press-ganged into terraforming other planets, research suggests.

A team of biologists and chemists from Australia, the UK, France and Italy has been investigating the ability of cyanobacteria – also known as blue-green algae – to photosynthesise in low-light conditions.

Cyanobacteria are some of the most ancient organisms around, and were responsible, though photosynthesis, for converting the Earth’s early atmosphere of methane, ammonia and other gases into the composition it sustains today.

The photochemistry used by the microbes is pretty much the same as that used by the legion of multicellular plants that subsequently evolved. The process involves the use of red light. Most plants are green because chlorophyll is bad at absorbing energy from that part of the visible light spectrum, and thus reflects it.

Light itself, however, is a critical component for photosynthesis, which is why plants (and suitably equipped bacteria) fail to grow in very dark environments. Just how dark such environments need to be before the process becomes impossible was the focus of the new research.

The team of scientists, which included Elmars Krausz from the Australian National University in Canberra, tested the ability of a cyanobacterial species called Chroococcidiopsis thermalis to photosynthesise in low light.

Previously it had been widely thought that the necessary photochemistry shut down at a light wavelength of 700 nanometres – a point known as the “red limit”.