Researchers at Imperial College London have just begun a 5-year project to design and build tiny earthquake measuring devices to go to Mars on the 2007 NetLander mission. Unlike the instruments on next year’s European Mars Express/Beagle II mission, the Marsquake sensors will be the first to look deep inside the planet. The internal structure of Mars is a key to understanding some fundamental questions about the planet including whether life ever existed there. The sensors are capable of detecting liquid water reservoirs hidden below the surface, where life could possibly survive on Mars today. The recent discovery by the Mars Odyssey orbiter of large amounts of ice at the poles opens up the possibility of liquid water existing in the warmer conditions underground near the Martian equator. Dr. Tom Pike is designing the heart of the sensor, a two-centimeter square of silicon. “We’re micromachining a near-perfect spring and weight from a single piece of silicon. We’ll be able to detect the weight shuddering in response to a Marsquake from anywhere on the planet,” he said.
When it was announced last month that the Mars Odyssey satellite had found water ice beneath the planet’s frozen carbon dioxide south polar ice cap, at least one scientist was thrilled. “I felt excited!” says Dr. Lidija Siller, a physicist from the University of Newcastle. “I believe that the data I have explains how this water got trapped underneath the surface.” Dr. Siller presented the results of her research — which involves studying photochemical reactions in ice — at the Condensed Matter physics conference on Monday, part of the Institute of Physics Congress in Brighton, England. Photochemical reactions are changes in the chemistry of a substance that occur when light is shined at it. On Mars, both ultraviolet (UV) light from the Sun and low energy electrons can cause photochemical reactions in the carbon dioxide ice caps. The electrons are produced when high energy X-rays from the Sun fall on the ice.
University of California, Berkeley, chemists have found a way to make cheap plastic solar cells flexible enough to paint onto any surface and potentially able to provide electricity for wearable electronics or other low-power devices. The group’s first crude solar cells have achieved efficiencies of 1.7 percent, far less than the 10 percent efficiencies of today’s standard commercial photovoltaics. The best solar cells, which are very expensive semiconductor laminates, convert, at most, 35 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity. “Our efficiency is not good enough yet by about a factor of 10, but this technology has the potential to do a lot better,” said A. Paul Alivisatos, professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley and a member of the Materials Science Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “There is a pretty clear path for us to take to make this perform much better.” “The beauty of this is that you could put solar cells directly on plastic, which has unlimited flexibility,” post-doctoral fellow Janke J. Dittmer said. “This opens up all sorts of new applications, like putting solar cells on clothing to power LEDs, radios or small computer processors.”
Most of the world
Mars Odyssey today is a step closer toward its mission of mapping the Red Planet. Odyssey is carrying the Gamma Ray Spectrometer (GRS), built under the direction of Professor William V. Boynton at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. The GRS is a suite of three instruments: the Gamma Subsystem, built by the UA, the Neutron Spectrometer, built by Los Alamos National Laboratory and the High Energy Neutron Detector, built by the Space Research Institute, Moscow. Boynton and other Mars Odyssey scientists will detail their science objectives Friday, March 1, at a news conference to be telecast from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
If microbial life is found on Mars, will it be native to the planet or something carried there from Earth? Either way, will it be safe to return samples of such organisms to Earth? Astrobiology, the search for life elsewhere, says a University of Illinois microbiologist, is making us look a lot closer at microbial life on Earth — how it adapts and its relationship to emerging infectious diseases. “Even if we don’t find life on other planets, we are learning a lot about life on the Earth, particularly microbial life,” Abigail Salyers said in an interview about her speech Friday, Feb. 15 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, Mass. She challenged scientists to consider far-reaching possibilities in a talk titled “Are There Medical Implications of Geomicrobiology?”
Scientists have known for decades that Mars, at least in its ancient past, has had a considerable amount of water. But when Mars Global Surveyor began mapping the Red Planet in sharp detail early in 1999, it disclosed startling evidence that water has shaped martian landforms within the past 10 million years. The discovery challenges the prevailing view that Mars’ surface has remained extremely cold and dry — much as it is today — for the past 3.9 billion years. It confirms the idea that internal heat periodically triggers short-term warmer and wetter conditions — conditions conducive to life — in the global martian hydrological cycle, University of Arizona Regents’ Professor Victor R. Baker says in a review article, “Water and the martian landscape,” published in Nature July 12. Baker is head of the UA department of hydrology and water resources.