November 12th, 2010

How Much Radiation Will Mars Explorers Have to Endure? Astrobiology Magazine

About eight months before the NASA rover Curiosity touches down on Mars in August 2012, the mission’s science measurements will begin much closer to Earth.
The Mars Science Laboratory mission’s Radiation Assessment Detector, or RAD, will monitor naturally occurring radiation that can be unhealthful if absorbed by living organisms. It will do so on the surface of Mars, where there has never before been such an instrument, as well as during the trip between Mars and Earth.
RAD’s measurements on Mars will help fulfill the mission’s key goals of assessing whether Curiosity’s landing region on Mars has had conditions favorable for life and for preserving evidence about life. This instrument also will do an additional job. Unlike any of the nine others in this robotic mission’s science payload, RAD has a special task and funding from the part of NASA that is planning human exploration beyond Earth orbit. It will aid design of human missions by reducing uncertainty about how much shielding from radiation future astronauts will need. The measurements between Earth and Mars, as well as the measurements on Mars, will serve that purpose.

September 9th, 2010

How Microbes Could Help Colonize Mars Astrobiology Magazine

Tiny rock-eating microbes could mine precious extraterrestrial resources from Mars and pave the way for the first human colonists, but would take much longer to help transform the red planet via terraforming. One of the most promising planetary colonizers comes in the form of cyanobacteria. The ancient bacteria helped create a habitable Earth with oxygen at least 2.5 billion years ago, and have since colonized practically every possible environment while relying upon photosynthesis to convert sunlight into energy.
Cyanobacteria and other rock-dwelling microbes also have proven that they can survive the hard vacuum of space aboard facilities such as Europe’s BIOPAN exposure platform and the International Space Station’s EXPOSE platform. Only the harsh space radiation in low Earth-orbit presents a life-threatening problem for the hardy organisms.

December 10th, 2009

The Meandering Channels of Mars Astrobiology Magazine

The surface of Mars is littered with channels that appear to be the work of ancient water flows. Indeed, some of these channels meander back and forth like slow-moving streams on our planet. Channels can be carved by lava, wind and glaciers, but these processes can’t explain all the features on Mars.
“We’ve gotten over the hump and can now agree that water flowed on the martian surface in the past,” says Alan Howard of the University of Virginia.
But how much and when is still unclear. Howard believes the meandering channels on Mars may tell us a lot about the wet history of our planetary neighbor.
Howard and a group of researchers will be tromping into the desert and the arctic to find terrestrial “meanders” that might explain their counterparts on Mars.

June 10th, 2008

Making Sense of Mars Methane Astrobiology Magazine

Research on methane at a Mexican salt flat could help reveal the source of methane that has been detected in the atmosphere of Mars. But first scientists have to decipher the unique – and seemingly contradictory – isotopic signature of the Mexican methane.

May 1st, 2006

Europeans psych themselves up for a trip to Mars Astrobiology Magazine

Last December a second Italian-French crew took up residence in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. They will stay there for over a year; nine months of this will be winter, with no visitors and no chance for an emergency rescue. The aim: to help the European Space Agency (ESA) with preparations for a human mission to Mars.

February 12th, 2005

The Martian Dust Bowl Astrobiology Magazine

After a year on Mars, the rovers have been covered with dust. Scientists believe one cannot understand today’s changes on Mars–its weather, temperature or water–without also accounting for dust. But the engineers trying to extend the lifetime of the rovers’ solar power are as concerned about the first year of dust.

October 18th, 2004

Mission to Mars: Risky Business Astrobiology Magazine

The Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission has sent back groundbreaking information about the history of Mars. The most important result is the discovery of salt deposits that indicate that some regions of the planet were once “drenched” in water. These findings bolster the notion that, at least in its distant past, Mars was a habitable world. But preparing the rovers for launch was an arduous and exhausting marathon. In a recent talk given at a NASA symposium on risk management in Monterey, California, MER Principal Investigator Steve Squyres explained how the mission team made it to the finish line.

October 5th, 2004

Splitting Cargo and Crew Astrobiology Magazine

The next generation space shuttle, like its predecessor, will serve many masters, as a cargo ship, a scientific laboratory, a docking platform, and a crew habitat. But according to Mark Fisher, Marshall Space Flight Center’s manager of Exploration Systems, the next shuttle will be designed to “separate cargo from crew.” That change is one lesson learned from flying the current shuttle for the last quarter century: human spaceflight has made cargo more expensive, and cargo can potentially make human spaceflight less safe. By splitting these basic tasks, it is hoped that a more robust shuttle, called the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), will emerge for its first unmanned flight test between 2008 and 2011.

September 15th, 2004

The Other Mars Meteorite Astrobiology Magazine

The most famous Mars meteorite, the Allen Hills rock with its strange, cylindrical rock segments, may not be the most intriguing. Consider a rock launched from Mars only 700 million years ago called Lafayette. Judging by detailed chemical analysis, the outcome of Lafayette’s long journey to Earth points to a past where it might have been altered at the bottom of a salt-water pool. Or at least that conclusion is what many meteor scientists propose to describe what might have landed in North America about three millenia ago.

August 30th, 2004

Life on Mars: A Definite Possibility Astrobiology Magazine

This much is known: At some point in Mars’s past, at least one region of the planet was drenched in water. Ancient Mars provided a habitat suitable for life as we know it. What kind of organism might have lived there? And is life lying dormant there still, just waiting for things to warm up a bit? No one can say. But one scientist, taking cues from earthly bacteria, has a pretty good idea of how a martian microbe could survive.