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Daily Archives: October 4, 2020
Posted: October 4, 2020 at 3:06 am
You can follow NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover in real time as it makes its way to the Red Planet.
The interactive NASA web application Eyes on the Solar System shows you where Perseverance is as the rover travels millions of miles over the next few months. The rover, which launched on July 30, is scheduled to touch down inside Mars' Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021.
"Eyes on the Solar System visualizes the same trajectory data that the navigation team uses to plot Perseverance's course to Mars," Fernando Abilleira, the Mars 2020 mission design and navigation manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, said in a statement. "If you want to follow along with us on our journey, that's the place to be."
Related: NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission in photos
Using the app, which you can find here, you can track the remaining distance between Perseverance and Mars at any time, view Perseverance up close and compare the spacecraft's size to that of other NASA probes, such as Juno, Voyager 1 or the Parker Solar Probe. You can also fly in formation with Perseverance or check the relative velocity between Earth and Mars or other objects like the dwarf planet Pluto, according to the statement.
"With all our orbital assets circling Mars as well as Curiosity and InSight on its surface, there is new data and imagery coming in all the time about the Red Planet," Jon Nelson, visualization technology and applications development supervisor at JPL, said in the same statement. "Essentially, if you haven't seen Mars lately through Eyes on the Solar System, you haven't seen Mars."
After Perseverance lands, the rover will hunt for signs of habitable environments on Mars and search for signs of past microbial life. The rover is also designed to collect a series of samples that can be returned to Earth with a future mission and carries the Mars Helicopter, named Ingenuity, which will be the first rotary craft to fly on another planet.
Follow Samantha Mathewson @Sam_Ashley13. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
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Posted: at 3:06 am
Friday night is date night for two bright celestial meetups that will light up the sky tonight (Oct. 2 - Oct. 3).
If skies are clear in your area during the overnight hours, you'll have an opportunity to see the nearly-full moon snuggling up with a shining Mars, followed some hours later by an even more brilliant Venus pairing off with one of the brightest stars in the sky.
On Friday night, Oct. 2, the moon, just one day past its "Harvest Full Moon" phase, will appear to glide closely above the planet Mars.
This dance will be a near facsimile of another close moon-Mars approach which took place less than a month ago on Sept. 5. That time, Mars and the moon approached each other a bit more closely than the upcoming rendezvous. But as if to compensate, this time Mars will appear twice as bright.
That's because Mars is only days away from making its closest approach to Earth on Oct. 6, while arriving at its best opposition until 2035 on Oct. 13. Both conditions mean the planet is now shining prominently with a dazzling yellow-orange glow.
Skywatchers located in Patagonia, the sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America, will actually see the moon hide Mars for a short time. (The International Occultation Times Association offers a map of visibility and more details about this "Mars eclipse." The same region will catch a total eclipse of the sun on Dec. 14.)
But if you aren't located in Patagonia, there's still plenty to see tonight. The close approach of Mars to the moon will be visible across the contiguous United States and southern Canada. The time of closest approach will come later in the evening as you head east.
Depending on where you're located, moon and planet will be separated by 1.25 degrees to 1.5 degrees. Since the moon measures 0.5 degrees in width, you might assume that the gap between it and Mars will appear to be equal to three full moon widths. However, thanks to an optical illusion, the moon actually appears twice as large, making the gap seem much smaller.
If you live in the Pacific Time Zone, Mars and the moon will appear closest at around 8:20 p.m. For the Mountain Time Zone, the closest approach will come at about 9:35 p.m. Across the Central Time Zone, it's 11 p.m., while in the Eastern Time Zone the closest approach comes in the early hours of Saturday morning, at roughly 12:25 a.m.
The moon appears to move east in its orbit around the Earth at the rate of its own diameter each hour. This movement will be readily evident using Mars as a benchmark. From New York City, for example, when the moon and Mars appear very low over the eastern horizon at around 8 p.m., Mars will appear to the moon's upper left. But after midnight, Mars will appear to be hovering directly above the moon and by 6 a.m. on Saturday, Mars will appear to the moon's lower right as they descend across the west-southwest sky.
Although Mars and the nearly full moon will appear side by side, don't fall for the ubiquitous internet hoax implying that Mars can seem to loom as large as the moon.
In tonight's tableau, Mars will be only 1.27% as large as the disk of the moon. So, to the naked eye it will appear not as a disk, but as a non-twinkling, albeit brilliant, "star."
No doubt many people who are out on the first Friday evening of October might do a double-take should they cast their gaze up toward the moon and wonder, "What is that fiery star that happens to be hovering above it?" But unless they're looking through the eyepiece of a telescope, nobody should expect to see Mars even remotely resembling a moon-size object.
Early on Saturday morning we will be treated to another unusual sight, when Venus, the most brilliant planet, passes exceptionally close to Regulus, one of the brightest stars in the sky, located in the zodiacal constellation of Leo the Lion.
Regulus is the 21st brightest star in the sky and marks the heart of the Lion; the star's name is Latin for "Little King." Regulus is 79 light-years away and is actually not a single star, but a quadruple star system composed of two pairs of stars.
Venus is by far and away the brightest morning "star" and will remain the focal point of the eastern dawn sky through the autumn.Venus rises a bit more than three hours before sunrise, before even the first light of dawn.
In the days and weeks to come, early risers will take note of the fact that the sparkling planet will slowly move lower in the sky and fade slightly. But it is still positioned almost as well as it can be for any predawn apparition.
And on Saturday morning, Venus willbe positioned just over half a degree to the south of Regulus. In the mornings that follow, the dazzling planet will move noticeably east of the star.
But spotting Regulus close to Venus on Saturday morning might initially be a bit of a challenge because of Venus's overpowering brilliance. Binoculars will bea great assistance, as Venusis now shining at magnitude -4.1 compared tobluish Regulus at magnitude+1.3.Convertingthis 5.4-magnitude difference into a ratio, we find thatRegulus one of the 21 brightest stars in the sky shines only 0.6% as bright as Venus.
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York'sHayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy forNatural History magazine, theFarmers' Almanacand other publications. Follow uson Twitter@Spacedotcomand onFacebook.
Posted: at 3:05 am
Like many workplaces this spring, NASA sent its most of its employees home and hunkered down. While the agency put some projects on hold, it pressed ahead with others. A pair of NASA astronauts flew to the International Space Station and back in a SpaceX capsule. The Mars rover Perseverance launched on its months-long journey into deep space. These efforts, years in the making, were nearing their finish lines as the coronavirus spread across the country, and NASA deemed them mission essential.
Read: The Pandemic has grounded humankind
Both launches, especially the historic flight of Doug Hurley and Bob Behnkenwhom NASA affectionately advertised as space dadsfor a moment drew Americans attention from a seemingly ceaseless current of tragedies, including stories of infected Americans dying in ambulances and footage of Black Americans dying at the hands of white police officers. Some people were delighted, grateful for a spot of good news. Others were surprised, even aghast, at the timing. Youre doing this now? Really?
The critique echoed the feelings of many Americans during NASAs most famous era: the race to the moon. In the late 1960s, the Apollo program unfolded against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, civil-rights demonstrations, and political assassinations. Polling from that time shows that the majority of Americans didnt think the Apollo program was worth the cost. The exception was a survey conducted on the day of the moon landing, when the mood around the world was euphoric. Even in that moment, though, the problems of our planet firmly grounded the minds of some AmericansGil Scott-Heron captured this most famously, in his 1970 poem: I think Ill send these doctor bills / Airmail special / To whitey on the moon.
Still, space historians told me, in those halcyon days of human spaceflight, even with all its turmoil, the country functioned on a basic level. In the late 1960s, a different virus known as the Hong Kong flu killed roughly 100,000 Americans, but did not destabilize the country the way COVID-19 has. Throughout the decade, the national economy was thriving, and an American passport meant something. Though the Vietnam War roiled American politics, the active front was in a distant country. The wars toll was heavyan estimated 47,434 Americans died in battle between 1964 and 1975but in six months, COVID-19 deaths in the United States outnumbered American casualties in the past five wars combined.
Even before the pandemic paralyzed the country, the prospect of Americans making it to Mars in the 2030s was far-fetched. In February 2019, a year before the first American died from COVID-19, an independent research group published a report about NASAs Mars dreams. At Congresss request, NASA had asked the group to evaluate whether the agency could launch astronauts to the red planet in 2033, not to land, but to loop around and come back, as the early Apollo missions did. The conclusion was bleak; given NASAs current plans, an orbital mission would be infeasible under all budget scenarios and technology development and testing schedules. The researchers found that astronauts might be able to launch in 2037, without any schedule delays or budget shortfalls, but believed 2039 would be more realistic, which would push a landing to the 2040s. (The institute that conducted the report has not done any analysis on the pandemics potential impact on these ambitious plans.)
Posted: at 3:05 am
Mars is lighting up the night sky as the planet heads toward an unusually close approach to Earth on Oct. 6.
If you look low in the eastern sky on any clear evening this week, soon after darkness falls, you'll see a fiery, pumpkin-hued "star" blazing brilliantly. Despite the "Red Planet" moniker, the weeks surrounding Mars' close approach are a perfect time to appreciate the planet's true hue, a yellowish orange, the color of a dry desert under a high sun which is exactly what you're looking at.
Astronomers use a scale called magnitude to rate the brightness of celestial objects and these days, Mars is shining at an eye-popping magnitude of -2.6. The lower the magnitude, the brighter the object, with stars on the threshold of naked-eye visibility classed as sixth magnitude. The most brilliant objects in the sky have negative magnitudes: Sirius, the brightest star, shines at magnitude -1.4, Venus can peak at -4.8, the full moon is -12.7 and the sun blazes at -26.7.
Throughout most of October, Mars and its topaz glow shine brighter than any other object in its region of the sky, except, however, on those nights when the moon is nearby (such as on Oct. 2 and Oct. 29).
Of course, any unusually close approach of Mars to the Earth will make the planet appear exceptionally brilliant and indeed, from now through late November, Mars will easily outshine Sirius and even Jupiter, which is typically the second brightest planet.
On Oct. 13, Mars will reach "opposition," the moment when the sun, Earth and Mars form a straight line in space. When a planet reaches opposition, it lies exactly opposite from the sun in Earth's sky: It rises at sunset, reaches its highest point in the sky at midnight, and sets at sunrise.
Imagine the solar system as a giant racetrack. Earth is moving in the inner lane, Mars comes to opposition when the faster-moving Earth overtakes and passes the outer planet. Mars comes to opposition about every 26 months. But because the orbits of both Earth and Mars are elliptical, not all oppositions are created equal.
This year's opposition is particularly promising for skywatchers because Mars recently passed its closest point to the sun, or perihelion, on Aug. 3. That means Mars will approach within less than 40 million miles (64 million kilometers) of Earth. Such "perihelic oppositions," as they're called, of Mars are rather infrequent, usually occurring about every 15 to 17 years.
But sometimes Mars can come unusually close to Earth on consecutive oppositions, which last occured in 1986 and 1988. This approach is the second in another pair: Just over 26 months ago, on July 27, 2018, Mars came just 2.78 million miles (4.48 million km) closer to Earth than it will come this year. But for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this year's opposition will make for much better skywatching.
Recent perihelic oppositions saw Mars approach Earth to within 34.9 million miles (56.1 million km) in August 1971, 37.5 million miles (60.4 million km) in July 1986 and 36.5 million miles (58.7 million km) in September 1988. Then, on Aug. 27, 2003 Mars arrived at perihelion just a scant 42 hours after its opposition. This was the closest that Mars approached our planet in nearly 60,000 years: 34.6 million miles (55.7 million km).
Because Earth and Mars follow elliptical orbits around the Sun, Mars' closest approach to Earth usually occurs several days before or after opposition. Utilizing the United States Naval Observatory's Multiyear Interactive Computer Almanac (MICA), I found that this year on Oct. 6, Mars will come within 38,568,816 miles (62,070,493 km) of Earth at 10:18 a.m. EDT (1418 GMT). At that moment, it will take a light beam 3 minutes and 27 seconds to cross the interplanetary gulf between Earth and Mars.
Opposition comes a week later, on Oct. 13. And it's going to be a while until the next opposition brings Mars even closer; that will not occur until Sept. 11, 2035, when the planet will be 35.4 million miles (56.9 million km) away.
Even after Oct. 13, however, Mars' inevitable fade will start out very slow and gradual. Mars will continue to shine at a magnitude of 2.6 through Oct. 17 and will still outshine Jupiter through Oct. 27. The Red Planet will continue to rival Sirius, the brightest star, until Nov. 20.
The next opposition of Mars will come in early December 2022, but because Mars will then be more than 12 million miles (19 million km) farther from Earth as compared to this month's extreme opposition, it will appear to shine with just one-half of its current radiance; in telescopes its disc will appear 24% smaller than it does now.
Skywatchers observing this opposition can take advantage of Mars' high altitude as compared to two years ago.
Back in July 2018, Mars was in Capricornus the Sea Goat, a constellation that appears low in the southern sky for most people watching from northern locations. Any object that appears less than 30 above the horizon tends to experience atmospheric turbulence; in telescopes the image seems to quiver or "boil," making it difficult to see surface features.
Your clenched fist held at arm's length is equal to 10, and two summers ago, Mars appeared less than "three fists" above the southern horizon, in that region of turbulence. This year's opposition finds Mars shining in the constellation of Pisces the Fishes, a star pattern that climbs much higher, and Mars will soar about 30 higher in the sky than it did in 2018 nearly "six fists" high and well above any unstable atmospheric effects.
That makes now a great time to check out Mars in a small telescope. Because it is a relatively small planet (only about twice the size of our moon), it rarely appears very big through a telescope. But now, as it is within close range, you can check it out for yourself. If you have a 3-inch telescope, try using an 80-power eyepiece, which should turn Mars into a sizable disc and bring out some of its darker surface features. Larger apertures will bring even better views. With a 6-inch instrument, you can try 160-power; 12-inches, use 320-power.
In 2018, the poor altitude was compounded by a planet-wide Martian dust storm that obscured virtually everything that might be seen. But this year, so far, no significant dust storms have developed, so visibility across the planet's disk is excellent.
According to Long Island amateur skywatcher Frank J. Melillo, who regularly observes and photographs the planets from his home in Holtsville, NY: "So far so good! The Martian atmosphere is still free of haze and dust clouds at this moment in time. But who knows? The dust storm might start kicking up the clouds tonight, next week, next month or (hopefully) not this year!"
Take advantage now for, as we noted earlier, Mars won't be this close again for another 15 years.
Interestingly, there is a 79-year-long cycle, over which the circumstances of a specific Mars opposition will replicate almost exactly.
On Oct. 3, 1941, for instance, Mars made a close approach to Earth much like this year's. At its closest that year, Mars was just 414,000 miles (666,000 km) closer to Earth than it will be this Oct. 6.
And 79 years from now, on Oct. 10, 2099, Mars will again make another unusually close approach to Earth, though falling just short of matching this year's by 400,000 miles (643,000 km).
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York'sHayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy forNatural History magazine, theFarmers' Almanacand other publications. Follow uson Twitter@Spacedotcomand onFacebook.
Originally posted here:
Posted: at 3:05 am
Patrick Gasda is a staff scientist in the Space Science and Applications group at Los Alamos National Laboratory. As a member of the OrganiCam team, he works with team leader Roger Wiens to study the geochemistry and astrobiology of Europa. The concept phase of OrganiCam is being funded by the Laboratory Directed Research and Development program. Gasda contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
In the disappointing absence of little green aliens on one of Jupiter's moons or a canal-building civilization on Mars, hunting for life beyond Earth stretches our scientific and technological prowess to the limits. If we do find life out there, it will be tiny, on the molecular scale.
After a successful launch in late July, NASA's Perseverance rover is sailing silently through space on its seven-month journey to Mars, where it will scour Jezero Crater for evidence of habitability and life. In this peaceful interlude before the rover's Red Planet touchdown early next year, we have time to think about future missions seeking life on other planetary bodies across the solar system.
Related: 6 most likely places for alien life in the solar system
Those missions will hunt for biological organic molecules, the carbon-based building blocks that make up all living things that we know. That's because, if we eventually do find life or evidence of past life on Mars or somewhere else, it's not going to be a little green alien. It's going to be a biomolecule or fossilized bacterial life.
The search focuses on habitable environments on Mars and beyond. Recent missions to the outer planets have observed evidence of water-vapor plumes from Jupiter's moon Europa, which raises the intriguing possibility of organic molecules on its surface, originating from the ocean below. Spacecraft have detected organic molecules within plumes emanating from Saturn's moon Enceladus. Most recently, NASA's Dawn spacecraft flew within 22 miles (35 kilometers) of the surface of Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt, and detected brine and a likely vast, deep reservoir of liquid salt water.
These are all high-priority places to look.
As one of the likeliest places to find life and certainly the closest Mars continues to command our attention. Although the cold, dry land, thin atmosphere, and extreme radiation at the surface are hostile to life, NASA's Curiosity rover, which is now exploring Mars, has found organic molecules. But are they biological? It's hard to tell because any molecules on the surface would have been severely damaged by radiation over millions of years.
Biological organics might be more widespread in the lava-tube caves on Mars. Sheltered deep in the underground, life might once have thrived or still does? in salty brines that seeped from now-disappeared surface lakes. Salty water has a lower freezing temperature than plain water, and deep underground heat from Mars' mantle might keep water liquid.
To find out if life might have formed any of the organic molecules on Mars, we've got to send instruments capable of answering that question, but exploring Mars deep underground is a daunting task. Most known lava tubes on Mars have at least one skylight opening to the surface. While we don't know how deep these caves are, their mouths are 300 feet (91 meters) wide, and some are thought to descend at least a quarter-mile (0.4 km) underground.
Why not fly in? To do so, our instruments must be simple, rugged, lightweight and compact. The same goes for sending instruments to the rugged, icy, high-radiation environments of Europa, Enceladus or Ceres. To meet these challenging criteria, Los Alamos National Laboratory has leveraged expertise designing and fielding instruments for space exploration to develop a new model, OrganiCam.
Life on Mars: Exploration and evidence
One precursor instrument developed at Los Alamos, ChemCam, is currently exploring Mars on the Curiosity rover. Sitting high on the rover's mast, ChemCam fires an infrared laser beam at rocks and soils, creating a hot plasma. The instrument then measures the colors of light in the plasma, which provide clues about the rocks' elemental composition. A camera provides highly detailed photographs of the laser targets, which also help scientists determine the surface geology.
ChemCam's discoveries have deepened our knowledge of Mars as a once warmer and more habitable planet, revolutionized our understanding of the planet's geology, and prompted us to revise upward our estimates of the former abundances of surface water and oxygen in the atmosphere both conditions for life.
SuperCam, developed jointly by Los Alamos with the French space agency, is ChemCam on steroids. Now sailing to Mars as part of Perseverance's Mars 2020 mission, SuperCam combines ChemCam's remote chemistry capabilities and imaging with two mineralogy techniques, making it even better at detecting compounds related to the possibility of life. On top of that, it can record sound through a microphone, a first on Mars.
As the next branch of the family tree, OrganiCam brings further innovations, including unique fast-fluorescence imaging for detecting not just organics, but biomolecules. Here's how it works. When stimulated by the laser, biological organic molecules emit quick bursts of light (about 100 nanoseconds). But other materials, like rock, emit light more slowly (microseconds to milliseconds). OrganiCam uses the same super-fast camera as SuperCam to measure these fast emissions, letting us discriminate biological signals from the background rocks. As a next step in the instrument's analysis, Raman spectroscopy identifies the molecular structure of the biological materials, so we can tell limestone from a volcanic rock.
OrganiCam also features ultra-radiation-hardened lenses, greater energy efficiency and a lighter and more compact design than its predecessors, so a small drone could carry it to far more places on Mars than it could go by piggybacking on a rover. Even better, a drone could whisk the instrument deep into one of those lava-tube caves. OrganiCam could also easily be adapted to a mission on an icy world. (You can watch a video about OrganiCam here.)
OrganiCam can be pointed at more earthly pursuits as well. It can nondestructively detect biological materials in unique samples without destroying them, such as material returned by missions from the outer planets and asteroids, and it can assess the presence of biological organics in cleanrooms, hospitals or other sterile facilities, to help stem the spread of infections or impurities in industrial processes.
While these are worthy assignments for this new instrument, for those of us on the Los Alamos team that developed OrganiCam, the lure of finding evidence of life on another planet, a moon, an asteroid or a comet is the overwhelming motivation. A discovery of that magnitude is every scientist's dream. I hope we get the chance.
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Posted: at 3:05 am
Title: Multiple subglacial water bodies below the south pole of Mars unveiled by new MARSIS data
Authors: Sebastian Emanuel Lauro, Elena Pettinelli, Graziella Caprarelli, Luca Guallini, Angelo Pio Rossi, Elisabetta Mattei, Barbara Cosciotti, Andrea Cicchetti, Francesco Soldovieri, Marco Cartacci, Federico Di Paolo, Raffaella Noschese & Roberto Orosei
First Authors Institution: Dipartimento di Matematica e Fisica, Universit degli studi Roma Tre, Rome, Italy
Status: Published in Nature Astronomy, closed access
This past month has been huge for our neighboring planets. Phosphine was detected on Venus, and it may point towards microbial life. Now, liquid water has been confirmed and mapped underneath the surface of Mars! The water was first discovered in 2018 by the Mars Express spacecraft underneath an ice-sheet near the planets South Pole. Todays paper used the same instrument, the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface & Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS), to look at the region in more detail.
The search for water on Mars has been a long one that has mostly resulted in finding lots of ice. The North Pole makes up a lot of that, whereas the South Pole is smaller and actually contains a lot of solid carbon dioxide. Scientists have also found evidence of water formerly flowing on the planet, and even an entire missing ocean. But the main idea is this: Mars once had water, and now it has a lot less, possibly because of an extreme global warming event. Finding the liquid water that Mars might have is really important because its our best chance at finding signs of life on the red planet.
To find water underneath the surface of Mars, todays authors used the same technique that is used to find subsurface lakes on Earth: radio-echo sounding. Basically, MARSIS bounced radio waves off of Mars and measured what was reflected back. Figure 1 explains how radio-echo sounding works. The time it takes for a signal to return to the satellite depends on how thick the layer of ice is, and the intensity of the returning signal depends on how reflective the surface underneath the ice is. By measuring these properties, todays authors were able to determine the structures underneath a region of ice on Mars south pole.
Figure 1. The radio-echo sounding technique involves sending a radio wave out from a transmitter and through ice. The wave hits the bedrock beneath the ice and is reflected up to a receiver. The time the wave takes to travel back to the receiver depends on the thickness of the ice, and the amount of reflected energy depends on the reflectivity of the bedrock (or subsurface liquid water!).
Todays paper used three main measurements from radio-echo sounding to identify subsurface lakes on Mars. The first was signal intensity, which directly correlates with how reflective the surface under the ice is. Water has a higher reflectivity than rock, so higher intensities correspond to liquid water. The second was acuity, a measure of the smoothness of the surface under the ice. Increased acuity means a smoother surface, which also corresponds to liquid water because as you can imagine, water is smoother than rock. The third was intensity variability, which is larger when there is a transition from a dry region to a wet region under the ice surface. Theres a general rule of thumb that variability over 6 dB corresponds to water.
The authors first explored the region as a whole (shown in Figure 2) by measuring the thickness of the ice. They found that both the elevation of the region and the thickness of the ice layer decrease to the North (downward and to the left in Figure 2). This means the base layer is relatively flat underneath the ice.
Figure 2 shows the results of signal intensity and acuity. The blue regions in each panel represent likely locations of liquid water underneath the ice. The previously detected water from 2018 is located at the (0,0) point of the images and is surrounded by other pond-like structures.
Figure 2. The region of ice that was surveyed on Mars. The center is located at (0,0) and corresponds to the previous detection of water from 2018. White lines represent the tracks that will be discussed in Figure 3. (a) The intensity of the radio-echo measured by MARSIS. Higher intensity (bluer) means a higher reflectivity, which can correspond to the presence of water. There is clearly water at the center location, and there is likely water scattered in surrounding ponds. (b) The acuity of the region, which is related to the smoothness of the layer of material under the ice. Higher and smoother values can correspond to water. The pattern of ponds mimics the intensity in (a). See Figure 4 in the paper.
To look at specific parts of the region, the authors chose four profiles to examine, represented by the white lines in Figure 2. Two of the profiles were in a dry, dim region (I and II), while two cut across the known, bright water (III and IV). These profiles are shown in Figure 3. The black lines show the surface ice, while the red lines represent the base layer of material. Peaks in the red, especially those above 6 dB in the intensity variability (third column), correspond to ponds of water.
Figure 3. Profiles of the white lines from Figure 2. Lines I and II correspond to regions outside the bright, likely wet area. Lines III and IV cross directly over the bright area that was identified as liquid water in a previous study. Black lines represent the ice layer, while red lines represent the base layer underneath the ice. The first column shows the normalized intensity of the returning wave. For regions with possible water (III and IV), the base layer peaks above the ice layer. The second column shows the normalized acuity, which also shows spikes in regions with possible water. The third column shows the signal variability. Anything above the dashed blue line is a liquid water candidate. See Figure 3 in the paper.
The authors argue that some of the blue regions in Figure 2 that dont make the 6 dB cut-off in Figure 3 might still contain liquid water in small amounts or in the form of wet sediment. They also found the area of the largest lake in the region (located at (0,0) in Figure 2) is 2030 km, about the same area as the city of Chicago!
You were probably asking this question the whole time you were reading this article. And youre right! Mars is way too cold for regular liquid water to exist without something else going on. There have been some theories that magmatic (magma flows!) activity might make it warm enough for liquid water to exist on Mars. But todays authors offer another explanation: brines. Brine is basically super salty water. The mixture of the salt and water actually lowers its freezing point, which allows the brine to stay a liquid at much lower temperatures. Not only that, but once the liquid is formed (say it melts when Mars is at its warmest), it has a hard time recrystallizing into a solid.
Finding ponds of water on Mars is not only super cool, but may also point us towards other life in our solar system. On Earth, liquid water is necessary for almost every form of life. Finding these ponds on Mars presents a new possibility for life on the red planet. It also demonstrates the effectiveness of radio-echo sounding in mapping water beneath an icy surface, which could potentially be used to explore moons like Enceladus and Europa.
Astrobite edited by: Brent Shapiro-Albert
Featured image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin / Bill Dunford
About Ashley PicconeI am a third year PhD student at the University of Wyoming, where I use polarimetry and spectroscopy to study the magnetic field and dust around bowshock nebulae. I love science communication and finding new ways to introduce people to astronomy and physics. In addition to stargazing at the clear Wyoming skies, I also enjoy backpacking, hiking, running and skiing.
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Posted: at 3:05 am
In 2018 a team of Italian scientists announced to the world that there was a lake on Mars. Using satellite radar data, the team detected a very bright area approximately 20 kilometres across located about 1.5 kilometres deep under the ice and dust of the south polar cap.
After analysis, they concluded that the bright area was a subglacial lake filled with liquid water. The discovery raised some fundamental questions.
Was this the only lake hidden beneath the ice on Mars? How could liquid water exist in the extreme cold of the Martian south polar region, where the average surface temperatures are lower than -100 C?
After acquiring additional satellite data, my colleagues and I have discovered three more distinct lakes near the one found in 2018 and confirmed that all four bodies contain liquid water.
Read more: Mars: mounting evidence for subglacial lakes, but could they really host life?
The radar sounder MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding) is one of eight instruments on board the European Space Agency orbiter Mars Express. This scientific spacecraft has been circling the red planet since December 2003.
The orbiting radar directs radio chirps toward the planetary surface. These signals are partly reflected back by the surface, and partly penetrate deeper, where they may be absorbed, scattered, or reflected back to the radar. Liquid water reflects radar signals better than many other materials, so the surface of a body of liquid water shines brightly in a radar image.
Radar sounders are used on Earth to detect subglacial lakes in Antarctica, Greenland and Canada. Here, a technique called radio-echo sounding (RES) is commonly used to analyse the signals.
There are some obvious differences between how radar sounding is used on Earth and on Mars. For a start, MARSIS operates from altitudes between 250 km and 900 km above the surface, it has a 40-metre long antenna, and it operates at much lower frequencies (1.8-5 MHz) than Earth-based radar sounders.
These differences meant we had to do some work to adapt standard radio-echo sounding techniques for use with signals from MARSIS. However, we were able to analyse data from 134 MARSIS tracks acquired between 2010 and 2019 over an area 250 km wide and 300 km long near the south pole of Mars.
In this area, we identified three distinct bright patches around the lake already seen in 2018. We then used an unconventional probabilistic method to confirm that the bright patches really do represent bodies of liquid water.
We also obtained a much clearer picture of the shape and extent of the lake discovered in 2018. It is still the largest of the bodies of water, measuring 20 km across on its shortest axis and 30 km on its longest.
The surface temperatures in our study area are around -110 C on average. The temperatures at the base of the ice cap may be slightly warmer, but still way below the freezing point of pure water.
So how can bodies of liquid water exist here, let alone persist for periods of time long enough for us to detect them?
After the first lake was found in 2018, other groups had suggested the area might be warmed from below by magma within the planet crust. However, there is to date no evidence this is the case, so we think extremely high salt levels in the water are a more likely explanation.
Read more: What on Earth could live in a salt water lake on Mars? An expert explains
Perchlorate salts, which contain chlorine, oxygen, and another element, such as magnesium or calcium, are everywhere in the Martian soil. These salts absorb moisture from the atmosphere and turn to liquid (this process is termed deliquescence), producing hypersaline aqueous solutions (brines), which crystallise at temperatures far below the freezing point of pure water. Furthermore, laboratory experiments have shown that solutions formed by deliquescence can stay liquid for long periods even after temperatures drop below their own freezing points.
We therefore suggested in our paper that the waters in the south polar subglacial lakes are salty. This is particularly fascinating, because it has been shown that brines like these can hold enough dissolved oxygen to support microbial life.
Our discoveries raise new questions. Is the chemistry of the water in the south polar subglacial lakes suitable for life? How does this modify our definitions of habitable environments? Was there ever life on Mars?
To address these questions new experiments and new missions must be planned. In the meantime, we are gearing up to continue acquiring MARSIS data to collect as much evidence as possible from the Martian subsurface.
Each new piece of evidence brings us one step closer to answering some of the most fundamental scientific questions about Mars, the solar system and the universe.
Read more: Mars: mounting evidence for subglacial lakes, but could they really host life?
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NASA Looks to Use 3D Printing Construction for Future Infrastructure on Mars and the Moon – SpaceCoastDaily.com
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By NASA // October 4, 2020
(NASA) The process of building landing pads, habitats, and roads on the Moon will likely look different than the common construction site on Earth.
Excavation robots, for one, will need to be lightweight yet capable of digging in reduced gravity.
A large-scale construction system could be autonomous and equipped to work without astronauts help.
As part of the Artemis program, NASA has a concept for the core surface elements needed to establish a sustained presence on the Moon, which emphasizes mobility to allow astronauts to explore more and conduct more science.
NASA is considering putting in place a lunar terrain vehicle, habitable mobility platform or lunar RV, and surface habitat on the Moon by the end of the decade.
The agency is investing in advanced manufacturing one of five industries of the future to enable space exploration and improve life on Earth including technologies that could find and use available resources on the Moon and Mars to build out future infrastructure.
Today, NASA is working with ICON, a construction technologies company based in Austin, Texas, on early research and development of a space-based construction system that could support future exploration of the Moon and Mars.
The company has 3D printed communities of homes and structures on Earth and participated in NASAs 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, demonstrating a construction method and technologies that may be adaptable for applications beyond our home planet.
Image provided by ICON, which is working with NASAs Moon to Mars Autonomous Construction Technologies project.
ICON illustration of a conceptual lunar base with 3D printed infrastructure, including landing pads and habitats.
Another U.S. government agency is interested in the technology and its applications here on Earth. The U.S. Air Force awarded ICON a dual-use Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract to expand 3D printing of livable and workable structures.
Part of the contract, which NASA contributed funding to, will explore commonalities between Earth-based and off-Earth applications. ICON will also invest in the effort.
Joining forces and cost-sharing among multiple government agencies allows us to accelerate the development timeline and bring the core capabilities that we have a common interest in to fruition sooner, said Werkheiser.
Together, we will help mature technologies that will have benefits for humanity on Earth and in space.
We want to increase the technology readiness level and test systems to prove it would be feasible to develop a large-scale 3D printer that could build infrastructure on the Moon or Mars, said Corky Clinton, associate director of Marshalls Science and Technology Office.
The team will use what we learn from the tests with the lunar simulant to design, develop, and demonstrate prototype elements for a full-scale additive construction system.
Based on the progress, NASA could award ICON additional funding and explore the opportunity of an in-situ test on the lunar surface.
From the very founding of ICON, weve been thinking about off-world construction, said Jason Ballard, co-founder and CEO of ICON.
I am confident that learning to build on other worlds will also provide the necessary breakthroughs to solve housing challenges we face on this world. These are mutually reinforcing endeavors. Sometimes, for the biggest problems, it becomes necessary to look up at the sky and not only down at our feet.
The SBIR award will build on ICONs commercial activities and demonstrations during Phase 3 of NASAs 3D Printed Habitat Challenge.
For the challenge, ICON partnered with the Colorado School of Mines in Golden.
The team won a prize for 3D printing a structure sample that adequately held a seal when filled with water.
It is rewarding to see past NASA challenge competitors go on to work with the government in other ways, said Amy Kaminski, the program executive for prizes and challenges at NASA.
It shows our approach of reaching out to groups outside of the traditional aerospace sector to solve challenges facing us in space and on Earth can result in unique collaborations to further NASAs technology development efforts.
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The path that ExoMars 2022 will follow to reach the Red Planet is set. The trajectory that will take the spacecraft from Earth to Mars in 264 days foresees a touchdown on the martian surface on June 10, 2023, at around 17:30 CEST (15:30 UTC). Credit: ESA
The path that ExoMars 2022 will follow to reach the Red Planet is set. The trajectory that will take the spacecraft from Earth to Mars in 264 days foresees a touchdown on the Martian surface on June 10, 2023, at around 17:30 CEST (15:30 UTC).
The weather at Mars, the type of launcher, and the laws of physics governing the planets determined a 12-day launch window starting on September 20, 2022.
Efficient orbital transfers, good communications, and no large dust storms on the martian horizon make the chosen trajectory the fastest and safest choice.
When confronted with how to get to Mars, European and Russian teams have to juggle many factors. The mission analysis team at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Germany took into account the performance of Russias Proton launcher to identify a number of possible trajectories.
Once a spacecraft is released from the rocket that boosts it into orbit, the spotlight is onto the men and women controlling the mission from the main control room of ESAs European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: ESA/J. Mai
We had several transfer trajectories to choose from and a spacecraft already built for the trip, says Mattia Mercolino, ExoMars principal systems engineer. These variables imposed on us constraints linked to power, temperature thresholds, and orientation towards Earth during the first stages of the flight, among others.
Being able to communicate with the spacecraft also played a major role.
One of the alternatives had a longer launch window, but a worse connection with the spacecraft during the first days. This choice was too risky, especially when you want to have full control at the beginning of the mission, explains Tiago Loureiro, ExoMars spacecraft operations manager.
Overview of the ExoMars program timeline. Credit: ESA
The final trajectory takes a bit longer one week more and the launch sequence requires more maneuvers, but this wasnt only about earthly constraints. We needed to understand the challenges unique to our destination. Mars orbital characteristics and dust storms were crucial to our decision, says Tiago.
Dust storms are frequent on Mars, but also difficult to predict. Seasons play a role, with stormy weather more likely to happen during the spring and summer in the southern hemisphere. ExoMars landing site is Oxia Planum, located in the northern hemisphere.
Threatening global-scale dust storms tend to happen approximately every ten years. The most recent one was in 2018.
Oxia Planum close up. This image was taken by MROs high resolution camera HiRISE and shows a relatively flat surface in this region. Images like these have been used in the assessment of the various landing site candidates. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Although ExoMars will land outside the dust storm season, a build-up of dust on the solar panels will reduce power supply and could even force a temporary shutdown of ESAs Rosalind Franklin rover and the Russian surface platform, dubbed Kazachok.
We went through a number of studies and tests to ensure that all systems would survive with reduced sunlight upon the late afternoon landing, and during surface operations the following weeks, adds Tiago.
European scientists want to operate the rover on Mars for as long as possible. Rosalind Franklin can cope with regional dust storms for a few days and with layers of fine dust covering its solar panels.
A global dust storm that blankets the atmosphere for several months would most likely result in the death of the rover, warns Jorge Vago, ESAs ExoMars rover project scientist.
That is why it is so important to achieve most of the mission objectives before the problematic dust season starts, he adds.
It took the teams at ESOC a few months of work to narrow down the final launch date and trajectory to Mars. The whole challenge is fantastic I think I have the best job in the world, says Tiago.
Launching a spacecraft, shooting it across the Solar System, hoping it lands in one piece, deploying it, driving it on Mars And we will do all of this without the luxury of interacting with the spacecraft or the rover in real time, he explains.
Engineers at Thales Alenia Space Turin, Italy, work on the ExoMars carrier module integrated with the Russian surface platform, dubbed Kazachok. Credit: Thales Alenia Space
Sending the first European rover to Mars requires true teamwork. Each and every command has been carefully planned together with the Russian partners, involving several control centers and countries.
ESA will control the communications between Rosalind Franklin and the Kazachok surface platform during their first days on Mars. As part of the ExoMars program, the Trace Gas Orbiter, which has been circling Mars for nearly four years, will serve as a data relay platform to support communications.
A few weeks after landing, and only when the surface platform is safe and able to operate independently, ESA will hand over the control of Kazachok to Roscosmos.
The ExoMars program is a joint endeavor between the Roscosmos State Corporation and ESA. Apart from the 2022 mission, it includes the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) launched in 2016. The TGO is already both delivering important scientific results obtained by its own Russian and European science instruments and relaying data from NASAs Curiosity Mars rover and InSight lander. The module will also relay the data from the ExoMars 2022 mission once it arrives on Mars.
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View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Brian Ottum caught the moon and Mars on October 2, 2020. In this photo, Mars is the tiny dot in the upper right. He wrote: I took this from my remote control telescope located in the New Mexico desert. Cloudy here in Michigan, so am happy to see it virtually.'
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Eliot Herman caught the moon just after full with Mars nearby, on October 2, 2020, from Tucson, Arizona. In this photo, Mars is in the upper left. He wrote: The moon and Mars were really beautiful.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Marcelo Barbosa in Texas captured this telescopic image of Mars on September 27, 2020. Mars will reach its once-in-2-years opposition on October 13. Thats when Earth will pass between Mars and the sun, bringing the planet closest to us for this 2-year period. Earth and Mars are already close, and the planet now shines brightly in our night sky. Plus the telescopic view of Mars is nearly at its best now! Thank you, Marcelo!
In late September and early October 2020, the Northern Hemispheres Harvest Moon will shine in the vicinity of brilliant red Mars! Read more.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Joel Weatherly in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, caught the northern lights and Mars rising in the same view, September 26, 2020. He wrote: This image features some of my favorite autumn sights, including the aurora borealis, Pleiades, and Mars. This weeks geomagnetic unrest has allowed for multiple nights of aurora observations here in Alberta. Mars has also been an incredible sight to observe, with its signature hue showing up plainly to the unaided eye.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Veteran meteor observer Eliot Herman in Tucson used an automatic all-sky camera to capture this cool image of a bright meteor and Mars over Tucson, Arizona, on September 22, 2020. He wrote: Looks like it was shot from Mars not really, of course but it does look like Mars shot it toward Earth. First time I have caught such a conjunction. View this image full-sized. Thank you, Eliot!
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Paulette Haws captured the planet Mars this past Monday evening, September 21, 2020. Mars is very bright now and fiery red, rising in the east not long after sunset. In this photo, Mars is shining above, and reflected in, Little Tupper Lake in New York state. Thanks, Paulette!
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Aurelian Neacsu in Visina, Dambovita, Romania, captured this telescopic view of Mars on September 16, 2020. You cant see much of Mars surface when the red planet is at its farthest from Earth. But as Earth catches up to Mars in the race of the planets the distance between our two worlds is shrinking. Thank you, Aurelian!
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | David Kakuktinniq at Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada, also captured red Mars gleaming through the aurora borealis on September 12, 2020. He wrote: Northern Lights over the Hudson Bay, with Mars near the center of the image.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Eliot Herman captured this dramatic view of Mars this past weekend, when it was near the moon: Moon and Mars clearing the ridgeline in Tucson, Arizona. The close conjunction of the moon and bright near-opposition Mars was a striking sight. The terminator of the moon shows the terrain picking up light on the craters and mountains leading to the observed discontinuities [the jagged appearance of the upper edge of the moon]. Thank you, Eliot! See more photos of early Septembers moon and Mars.
Bottom line: Photos from the EarthSky community of the bright planet Mars, now nearly at its best. Earth will pass between Mars and the sun bringing the planet to a once-in-two-years opposition on October 13, 2020.
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