The possibility of life on Mars has been a tantalizing possibility for years, and recent discoveries have only increased excitement about whether we’ll find life on the red planet. Now, a new study in Nature Geoscience posits that it’s possible that Mars may have enough oxygen to harbor life under its surface.
The team was led by Vlada Stamenković from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and their findings stemmed from two different discoveries. We know there’s a possibility that there are subsurface lakes of briny water on Mars; one in particular may be located under the Martian polar ice cap. This means there’s a lot of potential for oxygen within these lakes, if they exist.
Back in 2016, the Mars Curiosity rover discovered that Mars may once have had an oxygen-rich atmosphere, but the loss of its magnetic field meant that the bulk of its surface oxygen escaped. However, there is still oxygen within the planet’s rocks which means that it may be present underneath the surface of the planet.
Given both these discoveries, the JPL-led team took a look at how much oxygen could exist in these subsurface briny lakes, and whether it would be enough to support life. The team found that it was indeed possible, especially in the polar regions because the lower temperatures in these regions means that it’s easier for oxygen to enter these briny lakes.
There are a lot of caveats and unknowns with this research — after all, the existence of these briny subsurface lakes hasn’t yet been proven. But it’s the next step forward in showing how life could exist on the red planet, given what we think we know about Mars. What’s more, it also shows us how life could exists on other planets without photosynthesis.
Olympic National Park, located in Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula, is faced with a daunting challenge: removing a ballooning mountain goat population that’s developed a strong appetite for human pee.
Mountain goats aren’t a native species in the park. Since their introduction in the 1920s, their numbers have blossomed into a staggering 700 ungulates. Now, with humans flooding the area and routinely relieving themselves on various hiking trails, the goats have developed an insatiable thirst for urine, which serves as a strong source of salt and minerals.
Acting in concert with the National Park Services (NPS) and the USDA Forest Service, park authorities have begun tagging, blindfolding and airlifting the goats to the nearby forests in the North Cascades via helicopter. Fitted with GPS collars, the goats are ferried in pairs to nine sites in the Mt.Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, per a Motherboard report. The sites should provide a more hospitable environment for the surging goat tribe where they can roam free of human interlopers.
The NPS aims to reduce the goats’ numbers dramatically, to the tune of “approximately 90 percent of the projected 2018 mountain goat population, or approximately 625 to 675 mountain goats,” per a an Environmental Impact Statement. The remaining 10 percent would be dealt with via “opportunistic ground and helicopter-based lethal removal of mountain goats” when the terrain is too challenging to corral the goats with a helicopter. Last year, it was suggested that shotguns or high-powered rifles would do the trick, although the park insists its first priority is relocation.
With minerals necessary for their diet scant, the goats have developed a strong predilection for human pee and sweat, which they can find in abundance while foraging through the park’s 1,442 square mile domain. The NPS maintains, however, that urine has an adverse effect on the goat’s behavior:
Mountain goats can be a nuisance along trails and around wilderness campsites where they persistently seek salt and minerals from human urine, packs, and sweat on clothing. They often paw and dig areas on the ground where hikers have urinated or disposed of cooking wastewater.
Goats that “paw and dig” at the earth have posed a detriment to the environment, according to the NPS. Unrelated to lapping up urine are the general safety concerns of interacting with a swelling goat herd: a hiker was gored to death at the park in 2010, for instance.
“The nature of mountain goat-human interactions can vary widely, such as humans observing mountain goats from several hundred meters away across a ridge, mountain goats approaching visitors, hazing events and hazardous interactions such as the October 2010 fatality,” the report states.
Authorities cannot implement fertility control, largely because the animals are so hard to corral. There’s also no approved contraceptive available to quell their birthrates.
The Pentagon’s research unit is working on a project that one day would let people control machines with their minds.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is beginning the process of selecting teams of people for a project that would allow for the development of a neural interface in conjunction with its Next-Generation Non-Surgical Neurotechnology (N3) program. The hope is that it would let troops send and receive information using only their brain waves.
“DARPA seeks proposals to design, build, demonstrate, and validate a nonsurgical neural interface system to broaden the applicability of neural interfaces to the able-bodied warfighter,” a synopsis of the proposal reads. “The final technology aims to enable neural recording and stimulation with sub-millimeter spatial resolution.”
A paper on the proposal, with funding details, eligibility requirements and the application review process was written on March 23, 2018.
News of the proposal was first reported by Nextgov.
Though the technology will not be present on battlefields tomorrow, the Pentagon hopes that one day soldiers could control technology such as drones, cyber defense systems via brain waves.
“From the first time a human carved a rock into a blade or formed a spear, humans have been creating tools to help them interact with the world around them,” Al Emondi, the program manager at DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office told NextGov.
Emondi added that, as tools have grown more complex over time, they have still required some kind of physical interaction with them. “What neural interfaces promise is a richer, more powerful and more natural experience in which our brains effectively become the tool.”
The paper notes that DARPA has previously developed “neural interfaces intended to restore function to the wounded warrior,” but the N3 program “will broaden the applicability of neural interfaces to the able-bodied warfighter.”
N3 will have two areas of focus: a non-invasive approach that will include sensors and stimulators integrated into a device; and a minutely invasive approach that will record brain activity.
The paper describes the “minutely invasive” approach as having the developed technology “serve as an interface between targeted neurons and the sensor/stimulator.”
There are obstacles with both approaches, including issues with “signal scattering, attenuation, and signal-to-noise ratio typically seen with state of the art noninvasive neural interfaces.”
To date, this type of technology has been difficult to achieve, but recent advances in areas like biomedical engineering, neuroscience, synthetic biology and nanotechnology could make this type of advancement achievable, Emondi said in comments obtained by The Daily Mail.
The program will have three phases for both areas of focus, each lasting 12, 18 and 18 months, respectively. Areas such as efficiency, safety and effectiveness of the systems will be measured in order to determine whether the program is viable on a longer-term basis.
There are also questions of privacy and ethics, ones that Emondi appears hopeful can be answered without concern.
“We don’t think about N3 technology as simply a new way to fly a plane or to talk to a computer, but as tool for actual human-machine teaming,” Emondi said in the interview with NextGov. “As we approach a future in which increasingly autonomous systems will play a greater role in military operations, neural interface technology can help warfighters build a more intuitive interaction with these systems.”
The former International Space Station commander said the risk of death was simply too high.
“We could send people to Mars decades ago,” Hadfield told Business Insider.
“The technology that took us to the moon and back when I was just a kid — that technology can take us to Mars.”
Hadfield was referring to the famous Apollo 11 mission: it was the spaceflight that landed the first two people on the moon.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the moon on July 20, 1969 – and Hadfield is convinced that same spaceship technology could put us on Mars.
The problem, according to Hadfield, is that those classic space shuttles would simply take too long to get to Mars.
This poses loads of risks, particularly illnesses caused by the tough environments in space.
“The majority of the astronauts that we send on those missions wouldn’t make it,” he explained. “They’d die.”
The astronaut added: “Mars is further away than most people think.”
Hadfield isn’t wrong: there’s an immense distance between Earth and Mars, with the red planet being roughly 600 times further away from us than the moon.
The situation is made more complicated by the fact that the distance is constantly changing as the two planets rotate around the sun.
The closest that Earth and Mars can ever be is a distance of 33.9 million miles — or 9,800 times longer than the trip from London and New York.
A more useful distance is the average gap, which is even bigger at 140 million miles.
Launching shuttles to Mars have, so far, taken huge lengths of time – anywhere from 128 to 333 days.
That’s an incredible length of time to be aboard a cramped shuttle, particularly one so far from Earth — where the opportunity to launch rescue missions is near-impossible.
Astronauts who spend a long time in space face significant risks.
One is the threat from deep-space radiation, which can cause cancer due to prolonged exposure.
And a 2016 study published in the Nature journal found that astronauts who spend a long time in space have a much greater risk of deadly heart disease.
Hadfield compared the feat of putting humans on Mars to Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who famously circumnavigated the world between 1519 and 1522.
“Magellan, when he launched in 1519, they launched with five ships and 250 people to try and just go around the world once and almost everybody died,” Hadfield explained.
“They only came back with like 15 or 18 people and one out of the five ships.”
He said current space travel mechanisms of “burning chemical rockets” is the “equivalent of using a sailboat or a pedal boat to try and travel around the world.”
There are lots of space-faring firms claiming to offer Mars travel in the near future, but Hadfield is skeptical that using them to put people on Mars is a good idea.
They include NASA’s Space Launch System, SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket (masterminded by tech billionaire Elon Musk) and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket (funded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.)
“My guess is we will never go to Mars with the engines that exist on any of those three rockets unless we truly have to,” he explained.
“I don’t think those are a practical way to send people to Mars because they’re dangerous and it takes too long and it, therefore, exposes us to a risk for a long time.”
“Someone has to invent something we haven’t thought of yet,” Hadfield said.
When NASA’s Dawn spacecraft approached dwarf planet Ceres in 2015, everyone from astronomers to UFO enthusiasts got excited about some strange bright spots seen in the craft’s images. Dawn is now closer than ever to Occator Crater, the source of some of those intriguing spots, and NASA has released a fresh look at what’s inside.
Dawn reached its newest and lowest orbit around Ceres on June 6. It skimmed within just 22 miles (35 kilometers) of the surface and zoomed in on a large deposit near the crater’s center named Cerealia Facula.
Dawn caught this view of a landslide on the crater rim on June 16.
The bright deposits are made of sodium carbonate and are the largest observed outside of Earth. Scientists are wondering how they got there, suggesting they are “either from a shallow, sub-surface reservoir of mineral-laden water, or from a deeper source of brines (liquid water enriched in salts) percolating upward through fractures.”
The Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research also released an image showing landslide activity on the northern rim of Occator Crater. NASA says Cere’s landslides resemble ones seen on Earth.
“There are clear signs that material has been recently moving down the slopes; some of it remains stuck halfway,” the institute notes.
NASA hopes data and close-up images collected by Dawn in its new orbit will shed some light on the fascinating formations.
Dawn’s chief engineer Marc Rayman of NASA waxed poetic about the spacecraft’s latest achievements, saying, “Dawn is like a master artist, adding rich details to the otherworldly beauty in its intimate portrait of Ceres.”
NASA’s goal of returning to the moon should see a major push in early 2019, when the agency awards its first contract for the lunar “Gateway” program.
The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway is NASA’s planned “staging” area intended for studies of the moon and the deep-space environment. Eventually, it will function as a way station for astronauts traveling to and from Mars .
NASA’s first spending for the platform will be for power and propulsion elements early next year, followed by habitation components, Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier said Thursday at the Space Symposium conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado. They will probably be launched moonward, in that order, starting in 2022.
The platform should be orbiting the moon in 2025, said Gerstenmaier, a 41-year NASA veteran who oversees human exploration and operations. It will carry a four-astronaut crew on 30-day missions, he said.
The Gateway would also further NASA’s goal of another human landing on the moon and will help determine whether water near the surface could be used to manufacture propellant for deep-space missions. The moon’s gravity could also help a spacecraft reduce the blistering speeds used for six-month voyages back-and-forth to Mars, thus facilitating re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere.
“We want to understand orbital mechanics around the moon” a little better, far from the Earth’s deep gravity well, he said. “Doing things in this region, where gravity isn’t such a big driver … is a different way of operating.”
In November, NASA selected five companies to study a high-power solar-electric propulsion system to use in deep-space missions, including the lunar platform. Future human missions will require a power system that has triple the capability of current designs.
Trips to the “gateway” will be aboard the Orion, a spacecraft being assembled by Lockheed Martin Corp., with the service module being supplied by the European Space Agency. The Orion’s first flight, without crew, is scheduled for next year. The craft will serve as the command deck when it’s docked with the platform.
“Development of the gateway has great momentum, and we are providing our expertise as NASA looks to industry to bring know-how to this important effort,” Lockheed said Thursday in an emailed statement. The lunar platform is based on current NASA budgets and “doesn’t require a huge new influx of funding,” Gernstenmaier said, calling realistic budget planning one of NASA’s strategic principles for how to pioneer deep-space missions.“It’s got fiscal realism, and it’s also adaptable,” he said of the program. “It can adapt to commercial partners. It’s not a rigid program of one mission following another,” an allusion to the Apollo program, which famously required an aggressive schedule of flights that built off each other.“As long as we view the moon as a stepping stone and not an end goal, I think we’re OK,” Gernstenmaier said. NASA is also assessing how to continue the U.S. presence in low-Earth orbit. The Trump administration has proposed ending U.S. funding of the International Space Station in 2024. “We think it’s a great place to do development,” Gerstenmaier said. “To do major development in the vicinity of the moon is really costly.”
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.
“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.”
Virgin Galactic is resuming powered tests of its spaceplane after a tragic accident with its test vehicle SpaceShipTwo resulted in the death of co-pilot Michael Alsbury in 2014. The news comes via Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, who shared the news speaking to Bloomberg.
After current glide-only tests wrap up, powered tests will begin at a pace of one every three weeks, reaching higher altitudes until eventually climbing to the edge of space by November or December of this year. If all goes well, Branson himself is set to be among the first tourists to space in 2018 around mid-year, and then by the end of 2018 he hopes to begin offering full commercial flights for paying passengers.
This is the most we’ve heard about the progress of Virgin Galactic’s commercial passenger jet plan since the accident happened in 2014, and Branson tells Bloomberg that despite delays and the advent of new competitors in the space, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, they’ll still “never be able to build enough spaceships” to satisfy demand.
Virgin Galactic now includes Virgin Orbit, a small satellite launch and logistics business, and its most recent unpowered tests of its VSS Unity aircraft was a success, paving the way for flights with fuel on board, and then eventually powered flights as well.