Scientists Propose Craft to Search Venus for Life

David Grossman

Photo credit: Northrop Grumman
Photo credit: Northrop Grumman

After decades of looking to the outer solar system and beyond for signs of extraterrestrial life, an international team of scientists is suggesting that humanity take another look at a planet a little closer to home: Venus.

Although the surface of Venus is much too hot and inhospitable for life as we know it, scientists have long thought that microbes could be comfortably reproducing in the clouds of the Venusian atmosphere. Now, a new study in the journal Astrobiology suggests that dark patches in the atmosphere of Venus could, just possibly, be caused by light-absorbing bacteria. To find out, the study authors want to send a floating aircraft to comb the skies of Venus.

Earth’s sister Venus, the second rock from the sun, is similar in size, mass, and composition to our home planet-but that is generally where the comparisons end. The planet’s atmosphere is 96.5 percent carbon dioxide and almost 3.5 percent nitrogen. The runaway greenhouse climate keeps surface temperatures hovering around 864 degrees Fahrenheit (462 degrees Celsius), while atmospheric pressures on Venus can be as high as pressures a kilometer deep in the oceans of Earth.

But for all the planet’s seemingly inhospitable traits, “Venus has had plenty of time to evolve life on its own,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist Sanjay Limaye, who led the new study, in a press release. Limaye points to models that suggest Venus could have sustained a habitable climate with liquid water on its surface for as long as 2 billion years. “That’s much longer than is believed to have occurred on Mars,” says Limaye.

American and Soviet probes studying Venus in the 1960s and 70s revealed that the temperature and pressure conditions in the lower and middle portions of the Venusian atmosphere-around 25–27 miles up from the surface-do not necessarily preclude life. In 1967, Carl Sagan co-authored a paper with noted biophysicist Harold Morowitz suggesting that life could exist in the clouds. “While the surface conditions of Venus make the hypothesis of life there implausible, the clouds of Venus are a different story altogether,” Sagan and Morowitz wrote.

A chance encounter convinced Limaye to give the planet another look. Talking with co-author of the new paper Grzegorz Słowik of Poland’s University of Zielona Góra, Limaye learned about bacteria on Earth with light-absorbing properties. With a group of researchers, they noted similarities between the bacteria and a mystery within the atmosphere of Venus: dark spots in the atmosphere.

NASA has studied “an unknown UV absorber” embedded within the Venusian clouds. In presentation slides, the agency says that “the unknown UV absorber has been a subject of intense scrutiny since the dawn of the space age.” At the moment, the only probes which have observed this phenomenon have lacked the technical capability to distinguish between materials of an organic or inorganic nature. This unknown absorber, Limaye’s team suggests, could be alien bacteria in the clouds of Venus.

Photo credit: JAXA/Institute of Space and Astronautical Science
Photo credit: JAXA/Institute of Space and Astronautical Science

“On Earth, we know that life can thrive in very acidic conditions, can feed on carbon dioxide, and produce sulfuric acid,” says Rakesh Mogul, a professor of biological chemistry at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a co-author on the new paper. Similarly harsh conditions might be able to sustain life amongst the clouds of Venus, something the team suggests could be similar to algae in lakes on Earth-except floating in the clouds.

There are many unknowns surrounding the new hypothesis, including when exactly Venus’s water supply evaporated. Limaye and his colleagues have an idea for how to get find the answers: the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform, better known as VAMP. A hypothetical aircraft proposed by Northrop Grumman, the VAMP would steer like a plane and float like a blimp through the skies of Venus, taking samples of the Venusian atmosphere. This craft would carry instruments capable of identifying living microorganisms.

“To really know, we need to go there and sample the clouds,” says Mogul. “Venus could be an exciting new chapter in astrobiology exploration.”

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Bound for Mars, a robot arrives in Boston for training

Valkyrie, NASA’s humanoid robot prototype that Northeastern researchers will perform advanced research and development on, arrived at UMass Lowell on April 6.
Valkyrie, NASA’s humanoid robot prototype that Northeastern researchers will perform advanced research and development on, arrived at UMass Lowell on April 6.

ASTRONAUTS SPEND YEARS training before they go into space. The same is true for their robot counterparts, two of which recently arrived in Massachusetts to be put through their paces in preparation for a long-off mission to Mars.

Valkyrie is built like a linebacker — 6’2” tall and 275 pounds. Its job is to go to Mars and maintain equipment in anticipation of the arrival of astronauts, potentially years after Valkyrie first touches down on the Red Planet.

“If you don’t start your car for two years, do you expect it will start when you return?” says Taskin Padir, a professor of engineering at Northeastern University who will be leading the university’s work with Valkyrie. “Humanoid robots will be part of the pre-deployment mission to Mars and will maintain equipment prior to the astronauts’ arrival.”

A manned mission to Mars is a high priority for NASA, which hopes to achieve the feat by the 2030s. As conceived, the expedition would require NASA to send equipment like rovers and a human habitat to Mars years before the astronauts launch. This is due to the relative orbits of Earth and Mars, which make it only practical to launch from here to there every two years.

“You need to pre-position assets like a habitat, a power supply. Whatever you need on the surface, all that’s done years before an astronaut gets there,” says William Verdeyen, NASA project manager for Valkyrie.

Valkyrie’s destination may be exotic, but the robot’s tasks will be mundane. The Johnson Space Center in Houston will beam instructions to Mars (the transmission takes about 20 minutes), and the robot will carry them out autonomously. Likely jobs include repairing electronic boards, cutting cords, and changing batteries — all maneuvers that require dexterity, which is complicated to engineer.

“A [good] analogy is replacing batteries in a flashlight,” says Padir. “If we can do that with Valkyrie at the end of two years, that would be a great accomplishment from our perspective.”

Over the next two years, the Northeastern team will work on improving Valkyrie’s performance, especially at these kinds of fine-motor maintenance tasks. A separate team at MIT will be doing similar work with another copy of the robot.

Most of Valkyrie’s movements will take place inside the human habitat — a known environment for the engineers, which makes it relatively easy to navigate. Sometimes, though, the robot will have to venture outside, like to brush dust off of solar panels. There, things get more treacherous. And if Valkyrie falls on the rough, uneven Martian surface, there’s always the risk it will never be able to get back up. Fortunately, though, in all these tasks, time is going to be on Valkyrie’s side.

“This robot will have a lot of free time on Mars,” says Padir. “If your task is to clean a few solar panels in the next week, you don’t have to run.”


Astronauts Successfully Attach Inflatable Room to Space Station


Inflatable room attached to space station

A giant addition that one day may be used to support life on Mars has been deployed and is set to undergo a two-year test.It will be expanded to 5 times its size »



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SpaceX delivers world’s 1st inflatable room for astronauts

By MARCIA DUNN | April 10, 2016 | 12:05 PM EDT

In this frame taken from video from NASA TV, the SpaceX Dragon cargo ship is captured by a robot arm from the International Space Station, Sunday April 10, 2016. A SpaceX Dragon cargo ship arrived at the International Space Station on Sunday, two days after launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Station astronauts used a big robot arm to capture the Dragon, orbiting 260 miles above Earth. (NASA TV via AP)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — SpaceX has made good on a high-priority delivery: the world’s first inflatable room for astronauts.

A SpaceX Dragon cargo ship arrived at the International Space Station on Sunday, two days after launching from Cape Canaveral. Station astronauts used a robot arm to capture the Dragon, orbiting 250 miles above Earth.

The Dragon holds 7,000 pounds of freight, including the soft-sided compartment built by Bigelow Aerospace. The pioneering pod — packed tightly for launch — should swell to the size of a small bedroom once filled with air next month.

It will be attached to the space station this Saturday, but won’t be inflated until the end of May. The technology could change the way astronauts live in space: NASA envisions inflatable habitats in a couple decades at Mars, while Bigelow Aerospace aims to launch a pair of inflatable space stations in just four years for commercial lease.

For now, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module — BEAM for short — will remain mostly off-limits to the six-man station crew. NASA wants to see how the experimental chamber functions, so the hatch will stay sealed except when astronauts enter a few times a year to collect measurements and swap out sensors.

This is SpaceX’s first delivery for NASA in a year. A launch accident last June put shipments on hold.

SpaceX flight controllers at company headquarters in Hawthorne, California, applauded when the hefty station arm plucked Dragon from orbit. A few hours later, the capsule was bolted securely into place.

“It looks like we caught a Dragon,” announced British astronaut Timothy Peake, who made the grab. “There are smiles all around here,” NASA’s Mission Control replied. “Nice job capturing that Dragon.”

SpaceX is still reveling in the success of Friday’s booster landing at sea.

For the first time, a leftover booster came to a solid vertical touchdown on a floating platform. SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk wants to reuse boosters to save money, a process that he says will open access to space for more people in more places, like Mars. His ambition is to establish a city on Mars.

NASA also has Mars in its sights and looks to send astronauts there in the 2030s. In order to focus on that objective, the space agency has hired U.S. companies like SpaceX to deliver cargo and, as early as next year, astronauts to the space station. U.S. astronauts currently have to hitch rides on Russian rockets.

In a sign of these new commercial space times, a Dragon capsule is sharing the station for the first time with Orbital ATK’s supply ship named Cygnus, already parked there two weeks. This is also the first time in five years that the compound has six docking ports occupied: Dragon, Cygnus, two Russian Progress freighters and two Russian Soyuz crew capsules.

The Dragon will remain at the station for a month before returning to Earth with science samples, many of them from one-year spaceman Scott Kelly. He ended his historic mission last month. Cygnus will stick around a little longer.

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by Evan Gough

Comet Siding Spring (C/2007 Q3) as imaged in the infrared by the WISE space telescope. The image was taken January 10, 2010 when the comet was 2.5AU from the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

In the Autumn of 2014, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft arrived at Mars and entered into orbit. MAVEN wasn’t the only visitor to arrive at Mars at that time though, as comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) also showed up at Mars. Most of MAVEN’s instruments were shut down to protect sensitive electronics from Siding Spring’s magnetic field. But the magnetometer aboard the spacecraft was left on, which gave MAVEN a great view of the interaction between the planet and the comet.

Unlike Earth, which has a powerful magnetosphere created by its rotating metal core, Mars’ magnetosphere is created by plasma in its upper atmosphere, and is not very powerful. (Mars may have had a rotating metal core in the past, and a stronger magnetosphere because of it, but that’s beside the point.) Comet Siding Spring is small, with its nucleus being only about one half a kilometer. But its magnetosphere is situated in its coma, the long ‘tail’ of the comet that stretches out for a million kilometers.

When Siding Spring approached Mars, it came to within 140,000 km (87,000 miles) of the planet. But the comet’s coma nearly touched the surface of the planet, and during that hours-long encounter, the magnetic field from the comet created havoc with Mars’ magnetic field. And MAVEN’s magnetometer captured the event.

MAVEN was in position to capture the close encounter between Mars and comet Siding Spring. Image: NASA/Goddard.

Jared Espley is a member of the MAVEN team at Goddard Space Flight Center. He said of the Mars/Siding Spring event, “We think the encounter blew away part of Mars’ upper atmosphere, much like a strong solar storm would.”

“The main action took place during the comet’s closest approach,” said Espley, “but the planet’s magnetosphere began to feel some effects as soon as it entered the outer edge of the comet’s coma.”

Espley and his colleagues describe the event as a tide that washed over the Martian magnetosphere. Comet Siding Spring’s tail has a magnetosphere due to its interactions with the solar wind. As the comet is heated by the sun, plasma is generated, which interacts in turn with the solar wind, creating a magnetosphere. And like a tide, the effects were subtle at first, and the event played out over several hours as the comet passed by the planet.

Siding Spring’s magnetic tide had only a subtle effect on Mars at first. Normally, Mars’ magnetosphere is situated evenly around the planet, but as the comet got closer, some parts of the planet’s magnetosphere began to realign themselves. Eventually the effect was so powerful that the field was thrown into chaos, like a flag flapping every which way in a powerful wind. It took Mars a while to recover from this encounter as the field took several hours to recover.

MAVEN’s task is to gain a better understanding of the interactions between the Sun’s solar wind and Mars. So being able to witness the effect that Siding Spring had on Mars is an added bonus. Bruce Jakosky, from the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, is one of MAVEN’s principal investigators. “By looking at how the magnetospheres of the comet and of Mars interact with each other,” said Jakosky, “we’re getting a better understanding of the detailed processes that control each one.”

With Mars in Mind, Lockheed Martin Designs Human Habitat to Orbit Moon


Lockheed Martin’s concept of a habitat that could be used during future exploration missions near the moon

Lockheed Martin’s concept of a habitat that could be used during future exploration missions near the moon. (Image: Lockheed Martin)

As the idea of a human mission to Mars leaps from the pages of science fictionliterature (or off the silver screen) and into reality, NASA is taking a serious look at how astronauts will live, work and survive during the long journey to the red planet.

The federal space agency and its manufacturing partner Lockheed Martin have recently crossed a major milestone in preparation to land the first humans on Marsby completing the pressure module or “backbone” of the vehicle that will take them there—the Orion Crew Module. This spacecraft will launch atop the Space Launch System—the most powerful rocket ever built—and sustain a crew for 21 days as they travel into deep space.

It takes a lot longer than three weeks to get to our neighboring planet so where will astronauts live and work during the rest of the trek through the solar system?Lockheed Martin is in the early stages of providing an answer.

As part of NASA’s NextStep habitat study that is currently underway, Lockheed is one of the four companies conceptualizing an Exploration Augmentation Module or “outpost” that will mate with Orion and sustain a crew for up to 60 days during the first deep space missions leading up to Mars. These outings will see humans travel beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since 1972 and head toward a destination in cislunar space—a distant orbit around the Moon.

Targeted for the mid 2020s, these exploration missions will see NASA attempt to redirect an asteroid into lunar orbit and eventually study that captured asteroid by rendezvousing with it. A habitat will provide a temporary home for astronauts during these endeavors and will enable them to forge the skills and push the innovations of long-duration spaceflight required to ensure a safe trip for a Mars-bound crew.

Currently, the International Space Station serves as the only scientific laboratory and permanent human outpost in low-Earth orbit. A habitat orbiting the Moon would operate very differently. “The cislunar outpost is actually what we call crew-tended. Crew will not be there year-round like they are on the ISS,” Lockheed Martin’s space exploration architect Josh Hopkins told the Observer. “They will visit for a mission-a-year and that mission could be 30-60 days long.”

One of the major hurdles for a manned mission to Mars is human exposure to space radiation, and this issue will be tackled in cislunar space. The habitat’s initial 60-day limit was established by Lockheed’s team to ensure a safe stay for the crew given this element of radiation. Solar storms and the continuous exposure to cosmic rays are difficult to shield from, but it does become more manageable by limiting the amount of time astronauts spend in deep space. “As we build more knowledge of the biomedical effects and how to protect astronauts, we can start gradually doing longer and longer missions,” explained Hopkins.

As for the random bursts of radiation from a solar storm that could occur, the crew would be able to use the advanced built-in capabilities of Orion, which can act as a storm shelter. In the crew module, the closer an astronaut is to the heat shield, the more protection they have. In order to leverage this capability, they must remove supplies from “locker” spaces behind their seats and actually climb inside.

Protecting humans from radiation on Earth requires shielding from heavy elements like lead but with low-dosage space radiation, lighter materials can do the job. For this reason, Lockheed’s designers are mindful about the placement of consumables and waste products inside the habitat due to these items being a potential source of protection. “What we want are light elements. So things like water, food and plastics tend to be fairly good shielding,” said Hopkins. “We can adjust the locations and positioning of these things we’re going to have in a way that maximizes the amount of protection they give us.”

Along with acting as an emergency radiation storm shelter for the crew, Orion can also provide power, temperature control, and can even recycle air—features than enable a habitat to be low-maintenance and cost-effective.

The crew vehicle can use its propulsion system to provide maneuvering capability for the outpost, but Lockheed’s concept will include on-board, independent propulsion. “You don’t want to return to a habitat that’s tumbling because it wasn’t able to maintain its position in orbit,” said William Pratt, Lockheed’s NextSTEP study manager. “There will be a propulsion stage attached to the habitat and the capability to provide a small amount of power you’ll need when Orion is not there.”

The Orion spacecraft contains advanced capabilities that are unique to long duration deep space missions, enabling a cis-lunar outpost that is less complex and more affordable.

The Orion spacecraft contains advanced capabilities that are unique to long duration deep space missions, enabling a cis-lunar outpost that is less complex and more affordable.(Image: Lockheed Martin)

A human habitat or any spacecraft far from Earth will require some degree of autonomy, and this is a specialty for Lockheed Martin’s engineers. Unmanned probes like the MAVEN and the Juno spacecraft that will arrive at Jupiter this summer were both manufactured by Lockheed with autonomous capability. “We feel that’s something we can really bring to a cislunar habitat,” Pratt said. “Our thinking is more about autonomy and giving the crew more autonomy to handle things as they come up at the outpost.”

The primary reason for spacecraft autonomy is communication—or lack thereof. On the long journey to Mars, which could see astronauts spend at least two years aboard a habitat, delays in communication with Earth-based mission control will certainly occur. This could pose a problem when troubleshooting vehicle sub-systems that include life support and oxygen supply.

A major concerned for Lockheed is the long passage of time between the crew’s training and the moment a serious issue does come up during a mission—which could be a few years later. “They may not remember the training. Having the right kind of on-board documentation and flight computer to be able to provide the astronauts the information they need when they need it, is important,” Pratt said. “Not just having the alarm go off but having the alarm go off and the PDF file of the manual come up at the same time. That’s really useful in helping the crew understand how to operate their own vehicle.”

Even though Lockheed Martin’s early habitat concept will service exploration missions near the Moon, the company is always thinking about the manned mission to Mars, which will require a far more advanced successor to their current designs. Engineers will need to go through a few iterations of the concept after the health effects of long-duration human spaceflight are known and as new technology is developed. This is the basis that NASA created NextSTEP on.

The federal space agency is looking for a modular habitat that can grow, evolve and be added to. “New modules are built upon the lessons of the previous modules,” Hopkins said.


Wild new theory says Earth may actually be two different planets

Chris Smith,BGR News

A new theory says Earth is made of two planets, rather than just one. Apparently, our planet is the result of a collision that helped map the course of both Earth as we know it and the moon.

According to new research from the University of California, Earth and a hypothesized early planet called Theia collided, and the two planets fused together 4.5 billion years ago. That impact also formed our moon, Science Alert explains.

The initial working theory was that the Earth and Theia only side-swiped each other, sending the moon into orbit and then flying away into space. But this new research says that Theia never left Earth and instead, it helped shape up our planet.

Scientists studied oxygen isotopes from moon rocks from the Apollo missions and volcanic rocks from Earth’s mantle. Since each planet has a particular oxygen signature when it comes to oxygen contents, they would be able to see differences between lunar soil and Earth rocks.

If Theia simply swiped Earth, then the moon would be made mostly of Theia, and the Earth and moon rocks would have different oxygen isotopes. However, the researchers found they have the same isotopes.

“We don’t see any difference between Earth’s and the Moon’s oxygen isotopes; they’re indistinguishable,” researcher Edward Young said.

“Theia was thoroughly mixed into both the Earth and the moon, and evenly dispersed between them. This explains why we don’t see a different signature of Theia in the Moon versus Earth.”

The researcher also explained there’s evidence that Theia was a growing planet, still evolving at the time of the impact. The planet was similar in size to either Earth or Mars.

If confirmed, the research will help us better understand the origins and history of our planet. You know, as long as you believe Earth is a spheroid planet, and not a flat surface floating in space.

Why So Many People Are Reading This Old FBI Memo About UFOs

The most-viewed FBI file on UFOs is a one-page memo to J. Edgar Hoover about an investigation the agency never took up.​

Whether or not you believe in Earthly visitation by alien beings, it’s undeniable that UFOs have, at the least, become an essential part of modern day folklore. And in a bevy of stories that have added on to that treasure trove of fantastic tales, there’s one document that, according to Atlas Obscura, has become the most popular FBI file among UFO truthers.

The document is just called “Guy Hottel,” named after an agent in an FBI field office. It’s publicly available on the FBI Vault website, among a handful of other UFO and related cases. In one page, it describes an incident relayed second or third hand of a three separate but related UFO crashes around 1950 in New Mexico, with three alien bodies described as having a “human shape” but only being three feet tall, clothed in a metallic fabric. “Each body was bandaged in a manner similar to the blackout suits used by speed fliers and test pilots,” Hottel said. The craft itself was described as being 50 feet in diameter.

The agency denies that it’s related to Roswell, or that they even seriously investigated it. “Finally, the Hottel memo does not prove the existence of UFOs; it is simply a second- or third-hand claim that we never investigated,” it says. “Some people believe the memo repeats a hoax that was circulating at that time, but the Bureau’s files have no information to verify that theory.”

As Atlas Obscura points out, it’s likely connected to a sort of space age snakeoil peddler namedSilas Newton, whose claims were usually to spurious mining operations along with a series of UFO crash claims. According to TopSecretWriters, Newton finally got caught in 1970 after just under 20 years of FBI investigations for selling land to out-of-state speculators, claiming it had precious ore. Of course, that land just happened to be some of the land he claimed UFOs crashed on. The memo could be related to Newton’s Aztec UFO hoax, one that Newton and an accomplice duped journalist Frank Scully into believing.

Though Newton wasn’t tied to the Roswell incident, it’s interesting to note that Roswell itself hadfallen into obscurity from 1947 until 1978 when Stanton Friedman resurrected it. Most investigations into the matter, after the initial crash of the terrestrial experimental aircraft, took place at that time from second and third hand accounts. In fact, the reason for the crash at Roswell was declassified in the early 1970s, before Friedman’s investigations into the matter.

The FBI rarely touched UFO cases at the time, with the Air Force handling most investigations under Project Bluebook. Bluebook dug up no conclusive proof of UFOs, though a few investigations proved vexxing.

It’s also interesting to note that from the 1920s to the 1950s, New Mexico was ground zero for rocketry research. Robert Goddard carried out much of his early research there, with Nazi rocket engineer turned NASA pioneer Wehrner Von Braun further developing rocketry technology for the nascent American space program at the White Sands Missile Range. In other words, there was a lot going on in the skies of New Mexico for quite some time, and some of it was definitely coming back down from high in the skies.

So there you have it. The Hottel memo was either something so spurious that the FBI passed on investigating it (only relaying it to J. Edgar Hoover because of the director’s paranoia on all things) or obvious evidence of a massive cover-up. But given the actors involved, it’s safe to say it’s the latter. That won’t kill it off for sure, of course. Hillary Clinton allegedly wants to “get to the bottom” of UFO investigations if elected president. Of course, as with Area 51 and Goddard’s work, it could all just be highly classified weapons testing.

The biggest proof of alien life is unlikely to come from Freedom of Information Act releases of long declassified documents. Instead, it’ll probably come from a NASA mission to Mars or Europa, or maybe, just maybe, the Breakthrough Listen Initiative that pumped unprecedented amounts of money into the scientific search for technologically advanced life. But who knows. An alien craft could just fall out of the sky. But it’s not likely.

Source: Atlas Obscura