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SAN FRANCISCO — Parts of Mars were capable of supporting life as we know it for lengthy stretches in the ancient past — perhaps hundreds of millions of years at a time, new observations by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity suggest.

Since it landed inside the Red Planet's Gale Crater in August 2012, Curiosityhas studied a number of different rocks over an elevational range of about 650 feet (200 meters), which represents a time span of tens of millions to hundreds of millions of years.

The rovers' analyses indicate that the environment within Gale Crater changed considerably during this period, but never in a way that would preclude life from forming or surviving, mission scientists said today (Dec. 13) during a news conference here at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). [The Life on Mars Search: Photo Time Line]

The highest concentration of boron measured on Mars, as of late 2016, is in this mineral vein, called "Catabola," which NASA's Curiosity rover examined with its ChemCam instrument Aug, 25, 2016.

The highest concentration of boron measured on Mars, as of late 2016, is in this mineral vein, called "Catabola," which NASA's Curiosity rover examined with its ChemCam instrument Aug, 25, 2016.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNantes

"For that entire history [of Mars], it seems to have been favorable" for life, said Curiosity science team member (and former project scientist) John Grotzinger, a geologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Curiosity's observations — made by drilling into rocks, then studying the resulting samples — had already allowed scientists to determine that Gale Crater harbored a potentially habitable lake-and-stream system billions of years ago. (Like the rest of Mars, the area is dry today, at least on the surface.)

The new results paint a more detailed picture of that environment and how it changed over time. The results incorporate additional analyses that Curiosity has performed as it climbs the foothills of Mount Sharp, which rises 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the sky from Gale Crater's center.

The initial observations, made by Curiosity at lower elevations, suggest that the lake was first composed of fresh, neutral-pH water. That water got a bit more acidic over time, and then a bit saltier. The lake system probably dried up at times and then filled back in again, as the groundwater level rose, Grotzinger said.

But, despite all these changes, the area remained hospitable to microbial life, he added. (Simple organisms could have persisted in groundwater even during the lake system's "dry" stages.)

"This is all very good for habitability over long periods of time," Grotzinger said.

Furthermore, Curiosity's analyses show a complexity of minerals at the rover's various drill sites, from clays and magnetite lower down to hematite higher up. The six-wheeled robot also detected boron in Gale Crater, marking the first time this element has been discovered on Mars.

Again, this is all good news for ancient Mars' habitability, mission team members said.

This pair of drawings depicts the same location at Mars' Gale Crater at two points in time: now and billions of years ago. Water moving beneath the ground, as well as water above the surface in ancient rivers and lakes, provided favorable conditions for microbial life, if Mars has ever hosted life.
 
 
This pair of drawings depicts the same location at Mars' Gale Crater at two points in time: now and billions of years ago. Water moving beneath the ground, as well as water above the surface in ancient rivers and lakes, provided favorable conditions for microbial life, if Mars has ever hosted life.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNantes

"Variations in these minerals and elements indicate a dynamic system," Grotzinger said in a statement. "They interact with groundwater as well as surface water. The water influences the chemistry of the clays, but the composition of the water also changes. We are seeing chemical complexity indicating a long, interactive history with the water. The more complicated the chemistry is, the better it is for habitability. The boron, hematite and clay minerals underline the mobility of elements and electrons, and that is good for life."

Some samples also showed abundances of silica, which here on Earth is great at preserving ancient microbes, Grotzinger said. This find, of course, does not suggest that organisms have ever survived on Mars, but it could aid the planning of future life-hunting missions such as NASA's 2020 Mars rover, Grotzinger said.

"I think this is a tremendously exciting discovery," he said.

Curiosity will continue climbing up Mount Sharp's lower reaches, further fleshing out scientists' understanding of the ancient Martian environment and how it changed over time. The rover is in good health, though a problem with Curiosity's drill that cropped up earlier this month persists, mission team members said today.

Author : Mike Wall

Source : http://www.space.com/35018-mars-support-life-millions-years-curiosity-rover.html

Categorized in Science & Tech

Water untouched for two billion years has been found three kilometres underground in Canada, making it the oldest water in the world.

Key points:

  • Discovery surpasses water found three years ago that was 1.5 billion years old
  • Helps to show that life can survive below the surface and away from the sun
  • Could reveal clues about possibility of extraterrestrial life residing beneath Mars' surface

The research community said the discovery may reveal clues about the possibility of extraterrestrial life residing within underground pockets of water on Mars.

Three years ago, scientists discovered liquid which was 1.5 billion years old at the same site in a copper, zinc and silver mine, 2.4 kilometres underground.

But this deeper source of water, at a depth of nearly three kilometres, outdates the first finding by at least 500 million years.

The work was presented at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

Professor Barbara Sherwood Lollar, from the University of Toronto, led the team that discovered the original underground lake.

She described the smell and taste of the water as not "something to write home about".

"It's highly saline — another aspect of it that [which] tells us that this fluid has been in this sub-surface for really long time of period," she said.

"So sometimes up to ten times the salinity of sea water, it's really quite a nasty business really.

"It's nothing like the sort of fresh water that people think about when they think about groundwater.

"To us it makes it much more interesting, it's full of chemical energy for life, which is part of the reason why we're investigating it."

Professor Sherwood Lollar said it was an exciting find on a number of levels, including helping to understand what life was like in the deep sub-surface.

"For many years we still thought that life was really just a thin veneer on the surface of the planet, that life was largely dependent just on the sun's energy," she said.

"What we have learnt since then through work done at the hydro thermal vents, the ocean bottoms and caves and in the sub-surfaces, is in fact there is life on this planet as well in the deep dark places."

Could provide clues to life hidden beneath Mars' surface

Professor Simon George, a geochemist with the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Macquarie University and a member of the Australian Centre of Astrobiology, said the water could provide clues as to what might be discoverable elsewhere on other planets.

"[It is] also highly significant when we're exploring our solar system for other places that there might be life, such as Mars or some of the moons around Saturn or Jupiter," he said.

"So for example the surface of Mars is extremely inhospitable for life.

"But many scientists speculate that going below the surface might be where we might find life sheltering from the harsh conditions.

"And the work that's been published recently here has now shown the possibility of this deep biosphere really working quite separately from the atmosphere of a planet.

"It is quite an incredible geological process that's been explored there."

Author : Nick Grimm

Source : http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-15/oldest-water-on-earth-could-provide-clues-to-hidden-life-on-mars/8122468

Categorized in Science & Tech

( November 27, 2016, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) On 24 November I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon presentation entitled The Next 100 Years of Aviationconvened by The International Aviation Club of Montreal and McGill University.  It was an event well attended by the aviation intelligentsia of Montreal.  The presentation was well thought through and eloquently delivered.  One of the prognostications presented for the next century was that Mars would be colonized and we would be growing vegetables and other produce for our consumption on the planet.  This is not difficult to imagine since  at present the Mars One project has developed plans to send humans to Mars, although much has to be accomplished in the nature of making the planet habitable for human existence. It is said though, that “establishing a permanent settlement is very complex, but it is far less complex and requires much less infrastructure that is sent to Mars than on return missions”. Already, Mars One – a not-for-profit foundation that works at establishing permanent human life on Mars –  has commenced discussions with established aerospace companies with a view to developing the systems needed for sustaining human life and establishing human colonies. Although such systems require complex designing, construction, and testing, it is said that no scientific breakthroughs are required to sustain human life on Mars  as existing technology is sophisticated enough to ensure living conditions on the planet.  Perhaps the most encouraging statement issued by Mars One is that there will already be a habitable environment waiting for the first human crew to land on the Planet.

Doubtless, this news is music to the years of the next generation of aviation professionals who occupied two tables at the luncheon – youngsters from both the International Civil Aviation Organization and McGill University.  How exciting for them to be at the cusp of outer space travel, let alone be faced with the long term prospect of being able to have an extra terrestrial abode for their children and grand children!

However, there seem to be a couple of snags here:  At the presentation, it was forecast that by 2116, there could be at least one flight a day from Earth to Mars presumably carrying tourists and settlers.  But before then, well, way before then, humans would have landed on Mars and in fact settled there permanently.  Sarah Knapton, Science Editor for The Telegraph in her article entitled   Nasa planning ‘Earth Independent’ Mars colony by 2030s   quotes NASA as having claimed that humans will be living and working on Mars in colonies entirely independent of Earth by the 2030s. In fact, NASA is purported to have released a plan for establishing permanent settlements on Mars on the basis of creating ‘deep-space habitation facilities’ which will act as stepping stones to Mars.

If humans were to settle on Mars in just 15 to 20 years’ time, how is this conceivable when we still do not have a global understanding or agreement on at what altitude air space ends and at what point outer space begins?  What are the laws that would govern travel from airspace to outer space?  Air law and space law are closely inter-related in some areas and  both these disciplines have to be viewed in the 21stCentury within the changing face of international law and politics.  Both air law and space law are disciplines that are grounded on principles of public international law, which is increasingly becoming different from what it was a few decades ago.  We no longer think of this area of the law as a set of fixed rules, even if such rules have always been a snapshot of the law as it stands at a given period of time. The issue of air space and outer space is looming over the aerospace community, particularly with the prospect of space travel on a commercial basis which is already a reality.  Currently, the aerospace community is considering such issues as sub-orbital flights and space tourism, both of which could further blur the boundaries between air space and outer space, while raising issues of topical interest.  So far, there has not been a universally accepted definition distinguishing air space and outer space.  Some years ago, when the legalities of an aerospace plane, which is a hypersonic single stage to orbit reusable vehicle that horizontally takes off and lands on a conventional runway were considered, it was thought that the transit through near space which is involved is incidental to the main transit which takes place within the airspace.  Generally, the aerospace plane, which will be constructed with the use of aeronautical and space technologies and would be capable, and, indeed, required to fly both in airspace and outer space, would bring to bear the need to consider the applicability of and appropriateness of  laws relating to the space plane’s activities.  It will be subject to the sovereignty of the State whose airspace it is in. This is an incontrovertible fact which need not be stated since any object within the airspace of a territorial State would indeed be subject to that State’s sovereignty.

Recently, the official launch of space tourism, where paying customers travelled beyond Earth’s atmosphere, gave rise to an entirely different dimension, where the different issue of sub-orbital flights has emerged as requiring some consideration, particularly on the question as to whether such flights travel to outer space or whether they are deemed to be considered as not leaving the Earth’s atmosphere.  Unlike the aerospace plane which would leave the territory of one State as an aircraft, enter outer space and travel in outer space until it descends to a destination State, sub-orbital flights would not usually travel between two States but would ascend to an altitude sufficient for the persons on board to view the Earth as a whole globe, a phenomenon not available to aircraft passengers.  The vehicle would descent to the State from which it took off.  This activity is called “sub-orbital flying” and is gaining increasing popularity in the realm of space tourism. One of the issues that sub orbital flights raise is whether, at the height the flights are conducted, the vehicle is deemed to be in air space or outer space.  Therefore, sub orbital flights inevitably call for a determination as to what might be air space, as against outer space This question is particularly relevant when one considers liability arising from death or injury to passengers  while travelling in outer space. Although there are established treaty provisions regarding air travel under the Montreal Convention of 1999 there is no such treaty governing travel in a spacecraft in outer space.

Once the travel issue is settled, the other question that would emerge would be what laws would govern human conduct in outer space.  Who would be the governing authority?     Article 1 of the Outer Space Treaty provides that the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.   It goes on to say that outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.

Finally, Article 1 provides that there shall be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and States shall facilitate and encourage international co-operation in such investigation.

The more challenging provision in the Treaty is Article 2 which prescribes that outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means. This precludes a State from appropriating a celestial body inter alia by use.

Garold Larson, Alternate Representative to the First Committee of the 64th Session of the United Nations Assembly held on 19 October 2009, succinctly outlined the policy of the United States on space exploration.  The foremost principle outlined by Larson was that the United States will continue to uphold the principles of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which the United States recognized as providing fundamental guidelines required for the free access to and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes.  He went on to say that the United States will continue to take an active role in identifying and implementing cooperative efforts with established and emerging members of the international spacefaring community to ensure the safety of the space assets of all nations and also expand cooperation with other like-minded spacefaring nations and with the private sector to identify and protect against intentional and unintentional threats to its space capabilities.

 The European Union, in 2008, published a draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, which it later revised in September 2010. The fundamental postulate of this code is that member states should establish policies and procedures to minimize the possibility of accidents … or any form of harmful interference with other States’ right to the peaceful exploration and use of outer space. The Code applies three basic principles in pursuance of its overall objective:  freedom of access to space for peaceful purposes; preservation of the security and integrity of space objects in orbit; and due consideration for the legitimate defence interests of states. The code is not a legislative instrument and therefore has no legally binding effect on member States. It remains a voluntary agreement among states with no formal enforcement mechanisms.  On 4 April 2011 the European Commission published a space strategy for Europe whereby the European Union seeks to identify and support the development of essential technologies for exploration, in particular in the fields of energy, health and recycling (support for life in isolated environments). These matters are not necessarily dealt with in the space sector itself and cross-fertilisation should be promoted with other sectors in order to benefit the citizens directly.

Answers can always be found but the key principle is that technology and space exploration must go on for the benefit of humanity.  In the ultimate analysis, a joint space programme between key players of North America, Europe and Asia could greatly stabilize international space exploration. Growing spinach on Mars is one thing, but getting the laws in place within the next 15 years is an entirely different prospect.

Author:  Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Source:  http://www.slguardian.org/

Categorized in Science & Tech

We’ve written about why scientists believe Mars is one of the places in our solar system most likely to have alien life. There are a few reasons, but it’s mostly about water and what that can support. They’ve found signs of deltas, gullies and rivers that most likely existed in the past, and now another discovery is offering strong support that there was once life on Mars.

Scientists at Arizona State University recently announced they’ve discovered potential biosignatures (essentially more advanced, telling versions of fossils) on Earth that have “remarkably similar features” to some the 2007 Spirit rover found on Mars. They published a report in the scientific journal Nature Communications last week.

Authors Steven W. Ruff and Jack D. Farmer, who are both scientists at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, studied outflows from hot springs in El Tatio, Chile. The springs are located near the edge of the Atacama Desert, which has striking similarities to the location, called “Home Plate,” explored by the Spirit rover. At over 14,000 feet, they’re the highest known active thermal springs on Earth and reach temperatures below freezing at night. During the day, the springs have thin, dry air and receive high amounts of ultraviolet light. Together, these conditions make El Tatio the best terrestrial analog for ancient Martian hot springs.

NASA director reveals the four places most likely to have alien life in our solar system

What the researchers found was that El Tatio produces silica deposits that appear nearly identical to those found by Spirit in Gusev Crater on Mars. The discovery of these deposits in similar environments on both planets suggests life because it implies they were formed by a similar process—specifically, microbial organisms. 

“We went to El Tatio looking for comparisons with the features found by Spirit at Home Plate,” Ruff said in a statement. “Our results show that the conditions at El Tatio produce silica deposits with characteristics that are among the most Mars-like of any silica deposits on Earth.”

Exploration by the Spirit rover was discontinued in 2010 when the front wheel broke, causing the rover to get stuck and plow across the ground. This mishap is actually what caused the digging that uncovered the rich deposit of pure silica, and now the discovery of the silica deposits in Chile may be enough to send a rover back to that same site on Mars.

NASA has plans to send a new, more advanced rover to an undetermined location on Mars in 2020. To determine where to send it, NASA has been holding workshops where scientists present their best cases for specific landing sites. The candidate sites are then ranked, and Home Plate is currently ranked number two out of the eight sites still in the running.

Ruff and Farmer think this discovery will give Home Plate a very good chance of being selected as the 2020 rover site.

“This is a known hydrothermal deposit,” Ruff said. “We know exactly where to land and where to collect samples. And the silica structures found by Spirit meet the definition of a potential biosigniture.”

Source : https://www.yahoo.com

Categorized in Science & Tech

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