October 8th, 2004

Drug may keep astronauts’ bones strong Nature

A drug that prevents bone loss could permit astronauts to make long journeys in space, according to results from a study of spinal injury patients. Drugs such as zoledronate could certainly play a key role in long space missions, says Colin McGuckin, a stem-cell scientist at Kingston University, UK, who is working with NASA to develop a way to use cell transplants to limit an astronaut’s bone loss.
“It’s six months to Mars, a year doing experiments on the surface and then six months back. Over that time, bone loss is going to be a major problem,” he says.
But he adds that a mission to Mars will probably still need to provide the astronauts with an artificial gravity area, generated by a rotating section of the ship. “The solution will be a combination of clever medicine and clever spacecraft,” he says.

September 28th, 2004

Martian methane hints at oases of life Nature

In the first published study to track methane on Mars, researchers have concluded that life is the only plausible source of the gas. The putative martians are hiding in a few isolated spots and the rest of the planet is totally sterile, they say. Teams at conferences have already discussed finding martian methane. But Vladimir Krasnopolsky, an atmospheric scientist from the Catholic University of America in Washington DC, says that his study, to be published shortly in the peer-reviewed journal Icarus, is the first hard evidence for methane on the planet.

September 14th, 2004

Earth’s mantle can generate methane Nature

Methane could be forming in Earth’s mantle, US scientists have shown. The result suggests that untapped and unexpected reserves of natural gas and oil may exist deep beneath the planet’s surface. Fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas are organic materials made up of carbon and hydrogen. The consensus view is that all commercially viable petroleum and natural gas is made by biological processes – although methane can also be made in small amounts within volcanoes. In fact, the recent detection of methane in Mars’s atmosphere has been interpreted as evidence either of ongoing volcanic activity or of life.

September 2nd, 2004

Inflatable spaceship set for test flight Nature

An inflatable lifeboat could one day ferry stranded astronauts back to Earth, if a prototype’s test flights are successful next month. The re-entry vehicle weighs just 130 kilograms and is being developed to carry cargo back from the International Space Station (ISS). But its inventors believe that it could also let astronauts bail out of the space station, or deliver robots to the surface of Mars.

August 24th, 2004

Beagle 2 bites back Nature

The Beagle 2 mission team has released its own report about what went wrong with the ill-fated Mars lander. The European Space Agency (ESA) reviewed the mission earlier this year and blamed poor management of funds for the failure. But the UK team concludes that the most likely cause of Beagle 2’s demise was the fact that the planet’s atmosphere turned out to be thinner than expected, so the craft was unable to brake hard enough to land safely.

August 5th, 2004

Could astronauts sleep their way to the stars? Nature

The state of suspended animation that astronauts enter during long-haul space flights is a staple of science-fiction movies. But now the European Space Agency (ESA) wants to turn it into reality. Agency staff are planning future research into the possibility of inducing a hibernation-like state in humans. “We are not sure whether it is possible,” says Marco Biggiogera, an expert on hibernation mechanisms at the University of Pavia, Italy, who is advising ESA. “But it’s not crazy.”

July 28th, 2004

The search for life on Mars Nature

As Mars Express sends back the best ever data about the chemicals present in the martian atmosphere, rumours abound that scientists are beginning to detect signs of life on the red planet. What signs of life are scientists looking for on Mars? The smells of digestion. Life, as we know it, depends on chemicals built up from carbon and nitrogen, and whenever those chemicals break down they release gases like methane (CH4) and ammonia (NH3). Some bacteria on Earth get their energy by reacting carbon dioxide with hydrogen to make methane and water. Such ‘methanogenic’ bacteria are prime candidates for life on Mars, because they do not need sunlight or oxygen to survive.

July 13th, 2004

Glacial lake hides bacteria Nature

Scientists have discovered a community of bacteria living in the lake beneath an Icelandic glacier. The chilly world provides a model of martian terrain and may boost speculation about the red planet’s potential inhabitants. This is the first unequivocal example of life in a subglacial lake. “Yet another habitat on Earth that could be colonized by microbes, is colonized by microbes,” says Eric Gaidos from the University of Hawaii, who was part of the research team.

May 26th, 2004

Dust rocks martian river theory Nature

Gullies on Mars that appear to have been carved by flowing water could instead have been created by landslides of dry powdery material, scientists have found. Troy Shinbrot and colleagues of Rutgers University in New Jersey say that Mars’s smaller gravity, which is 38% weaker than Earth’s, would allow rockfalls to last longer than they do on Earth. This means landslides could cause the kind of geological features usually only associated with running water.

May 5th, 2004

How Mars got its rust Nature

Why is Mars so much rustier than the Earth? The red planet has more than twice as much iron oxide in its outer layers as our own, yet most planet scientists reckon the two bodies were formed from the same materials. David Rubie and colleagues from the University of Bayreuth, Germany, say they have an answer.