Newly Found Ancient Fossils Show Possibilities For Finding Martian Life

Fossilized remains found in Greenland have been dated to 3.7 billion years ago, 220 million years older than when life is believed to have emerged. Credit: A.P. Nutman et al./Nature

Fossilized remains are a fascinating thing. For paleontologists, these natural relics offer a glimpse into the past and a chance to understand what kind of lifeforms lurked there. But for astronomers, fossils are a way of ascertaining precisely when it was that life first began here on our planet – and perhaps even the Solar System.

And thanks to a team of Australian scientists, the oldest fossils to date have been uncovered. These fossilized remains have been dated to 3.7 billion years of age, and were of a community of microbes that lived on the ancient seafloor. In addition to making scientists reevaluate their theories of when life emerged on Earth, they could also tell us if there was ancient life on Mars.

The fossil find was made in what is known as the Isua Supracrustal Belt (ISB), an area in southwest Greenland that recently became accessible due to the ice melting in the area. According to the team, these fossils – basically tiny humps in rock measuring between one and four centimeters (0.4 and 1.6 inches) tall – are stromatolites, which are layers of sediment packed together by ancient, water-based bacterial colonies.

According to the team’s research paper, which appeared recently in Nature Communications, the fossilized microbes grew in a shallow marine environment, which is indicated by the seawater-like rare-earth elements and samples of sedimentary rock that were found with them.

They are also similar to colonies of microbes that can be found today, in shallow salt-water environments ranging from Bermuda to Australia. But of course, what makes this find especially interesting is just how old it is. Basically, the stone in the ISB is dated back to the early Archean Era, which took place between 4 and 3.6 billion years ago.

Based on their isotopic signatures, the team dated the fossils to 3.7 billion years of age, which makes them 220 million years older than remains that had been previously uncovered in the Pilbara Craton in north-western Australia. At the time of their discovery, those remains were widely believed to be the earliest fossil evidence of life on Earth.

As such, scientists are now reconsidering their estimates on when microbial life first emerged on planet Earth. Prior to this discovery, it was believed that Earth was a hellish environment 3.7 billion years ago. This was roughly 300 million years after the planet had finished cooling, and scientists believed it would take at least half a billion years for life to form after this point.

But with this new evidence, it now appears that life could have emerged faster than that. As Allen P. Nutman – a professor from the University of Wallongong, Australia, and the study’s lead author – said in a university press release:

“The significance of stromatolites is that not only do they provide obvious evidence of ancient life that is visible with the naked eye, but that they are complex ecosystems. This indicates that as long as 3.7 billion years ago microbial life was already diverse. This diversity shows that life emerged within the first few hundred millions years of Earth’s existence, which is in keeping with biologists’ calculations showing the great antiquity of life’s genetic code.”

When life emerged is a major factor when it comes to Earth’s chemical cycles. Essentially, Earth’s atmosphere during the Hadean was believed to be composed of heavy concentrations of CO² atmosphere, hydrogen and water vapor, which would be toxic to most life forms today. During the following Archean era, this primordial atmosphere slowly began to be converted into a breathable mix of oxygen and nitrogen, and the protective ozone layer was formed.

The emergence of microbial life played a tremendous role in this transformation, allowing for the sequestration of CO² and the creation of oxygen gas through photosynthesis. Therefore, when it comes to Earth’s evolution, the question of when life arose and began to affect the chemical cycles of the planet has always been paramount.

“This discovery turns the study of planetary habitability on its head,” said associate Professor Bennett, one of the study’s co-authors. “Rather than speculating about potential early environments, for the first time we have rocks that we know record the conditions and environments that sustained early life. Our research will provide new insights into chemical cycles and rock-water-microbe interactions on a young planet.”

The find has also inspired some to speculation that similar life structures could be found on Mars. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of Martian rovers, landers and orbiters, scientists now know with a fair degree of certainty that roughly 3.7 billion years ago, Mars had a warmer, wetter environment.

As a result, it is possible that life on Mars had enough time to form before its atmosphere was stripped away and the waters in which the microbe would have emerged dried up. As Professor Martin Van Kranendonk, the Director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at UNSW and a co-author on the paper, explained:

“The structures and geochemistry from newly exposed outcrops in Greenland display all of the features used in younger rocks to argue for a biological origin. This discovery represents a new benchmark for the oldest preserved evidence of life on Earth. It points to a rapid emergence of life on Earth and supports the search for life in similarly ancient rocks on Mars.”

Another thing to keep in mind is that compared to Earth, Mars experiences far less movement in its crust. As such, any microbial life that existed on Mars roughly 3.7 billion years ago would likely be easier to find.

This is certainly good news for NASA, since one of the main objectives of their Mars 2020 rover is to find evidence of past microbial life. I for one am looking forward to seeing what it leaves for us to pickup in its cache of sample tubes!

Further Reading: Nature Communications

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NASA Goes With Atlas V To Launch Mars 2020 Rover

The deployment of the Mars 2020 rover will be the next step in their "Journey to Mars". Credit: NASA

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program has accomplished some truly spectacular things in the past few decades. Officially launched in 1992, this program has been focused on three major goals: characterizing the climate and geology of Mars, looking for signs of past life, and preparing the way for human crews to explore the planet.

And in the coming years, the Mars 2020 rover will be deployed to the Red Planet and become the latest in a long line of robotic rovers sent to the surface. In a recent press release, NASA announced that it has awarded the launch services contract for the mission to United Launch Alliance (ULA) – the makers of the Atlas V rocket.

The mission is scheduled to launch in July of 2020 aboard an Atlas V 541 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida, at a point when Earth and Mars are at opposition. At this time, the planets will be on the same side of the Sun and making their closest approach to each other in four years, being just 62.1 million km (38.6 million miles) part.

Following in the footsteps of the Curiosity, Opportunity and Spirit rovers, the goal of Mars 2020 mission is to  determine the habitability of the Martian environment and search for signs of ancient Martian life. This will include taking samples of soil and rock to learn more about Mars’ “watery past”.

But whereas these and other members of the Mars Exploration Program were searching for evidence that Mars once had liquid water on its surface and a denser atmosphere (i.e. signs that life could have existed), the Mars 2020 mission will attempt to find actual evidence of ancient microbial life.

The design of the rover also incorporates several successful features of Curiosity. For instance, the entire landing system (which incorporates a sky crane and heat shield) and the rover’s chassis have been recreated using leftover parts that were originally intended for Curiosity.

There’s also the rover’s radioisotope thermoelectric generator – i.e. the nuclear motor – which was also originally intended as a backup part for Curiosity. But it will also have several upgraded instrument on board that allow for a new guidance and control technique. Known as “Terrain Relative Navigation”, this new landing method allows for greater maneuverability during descent.

Another new feature is the rover’s drill system, which will collect core samples and store them in sealed tubes. These tubes will then be left in a “cache” on the surface, where they will be retrieved by future missions and brought back to Earth – which will constitute the first sample-return mission from the Red Planet.

In this respect, Mars 2020 will help pave the way for a crewed mission to the Red Planet, which NASA hopes to mount sometime in the 2030s. The probe will also conduct numerous studies designed to improve landing techniques and assess the planet’s natural resources and hazards, as well as coming up with methods to allow astronauts to live off the environment.

In terms of hazards, the probe will be looking at Martian weather patterns, dust storms, and other potential environmental conditions that will affect human astronauts living and working on the surface. It will also test out a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere and identifying sources of subsurface water (as a source of drinking water, oxygen, and hydrogen fuel).

As NASA stated in their press release, the Mars 2020 mission will “offer opportunities to deploy new capabilities developed through investments by NASA’s Space Technology Program and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, as well as contributions from international partners.”

They also emphasized the opportunities to learn ho future human explorers could rely on in-situ resource utilization as a way of reducing the amount of materials needed to be shipped – which will not only cut down on launch costs but ensure that future missions to the planet are more self-reliant.

The total cost for NASA to launch Mars 2020 is approximately $243 million. This assessment includes the cost of launch services, processing costs for the spacecraft and its power source, launch vehicle integration and tracking, data and telemetry support.

The use of spare parts has also meant reduced expenditure on the overall mission. In total, the Mars 2020 rover and its launch will cost and estimated $2.1 billion USD, which represents a significant savings over previous missions like the Mars Science Laboratory – which cost a total of $2.5 billion USD.

Between now and 2020, NASA also intends to launch the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander mission, which is currently targeted for 2018. This and the Mars 2020 rover will be the latest in a long line of orbiters, rovers and landers that are seeking to unlock the mysteries of the Red Planet and prepare it for human visitors!

Further Reading: NASA, Mars 2020 Rover

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Viking: Remembering Humanity’s First Successful Mission On Mars Surface

Taken by the Viking 1 lander shortly after it touched down on Mars, this image is the first photograph ever taken from the surface of Mars. It was taken on July 20, 1976. The primary objectives of the Viking mission, which was composed of two spacecraft, were to obtain high-resolution images of the Martian surface, characterize the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface and search for evidence of life on Mars. Credit: NASA

July 20. Sound like a familiar date? If you guessed that’s when we first set foot on the Moon 47 years ago, way to go! But it’s also the 40th anniversary of Viking 1 lander, the first American probe to successfully land on Mars.

The Russians got there first on December 2, 1971 when their Mars 3 probe touched down in the Mare Sirenum region. But transmissions stopped just 14.5 seconds later, only enough time for the crippled lander to send a partial and garbled photo that unfortunately showed no identifiable features.

Viking 1 touched down on July 20, 1976 in Chryse Planitia, a smooth, circular plain in Mars’ northern equatorial region and operated for six years, far beyond the original 90 day mission. Its twin, Viking 2, landed about 4,000 miles (6,400 km) away in the vast northern plain called Utopia Planitia several weeks later on September 3. Both were packaged inside orbiters that took pictures of the landing sites before dispatching the probes.

Viking 1 was originally slated to land on July 4th to commemorate the 200th year of the founding of the United States. Some of you may remember the bicentennial celebrations underway at the time. Earlier photos taken by Mariner 9 helped mission controllers pick what they thought was a safe landing site, but when the Viking 1 orbiter arrived and took a closer look, NASA deemed it too bouldery for a safe landing, so they delayed the the probe’s arrival until a safer site could be chosen. Hence the July 20th touchdown date.

My recollection at the time was that that particular date was picked to coincide with the first lunar landing.

I’ll never forget the first photo transmitted from the surface. I had started working at the News Gazette in Champaign, Ill. earlier that year in the photo department. On July 20 I joined the wire editor, a kindly. older gent named Raleigh, at the AP Photofax machine and watched the black and white image creep line-by-line from the machine. Still damp with ink, I lifted the sodden sheet into my hands, totally absorbed. Two things stood out: how incredibly sharp the picture was and ALL THOSE ROCKS!  Mars looked so different from the Moon.

One day later, Viking 1 returned the first color photo from the surface and continued to operate, taking photos and doing science for 2,307 days until November 11, 1982, a record not broken until May 2010 by NASA’s Opportunity rover. It would have continued humming along for who knows how much longer were it not for a faulty command sent by mission control that resulted in a permanent loss of contact.

Viking 2 soldiered on until its batteries failed on April 11, 1980. Both landers characterized the Martian weather and radiation environment, scooped up soil samples and measured their elemental composition and send back lots of photos including the first Martian panoramas.

Each lander carried three instruments designed to look for chemical or biological signs of living or once-living organisms. Soil samples scooped up by the landers’ sample arms were delivered to three experiments in hopes of detecting organic compounds and gases either consumed or released by potential microbes when they were treated with nutrient solutions. The results from both landers were similar: neither suite of experiments found any organic (carbon-containing) compounds nor any definitive signs of Mars bugs.

Not that there wasn’t some excitement. The Labeled Release experiment (LC) actually did give positive results. A nutrient solution was added to a sample of Martian soil. If it contained microbes, they would take in the nutrients and release gases. Great gobs of gas were quickly released! As if the putative Martian microbes only needed a jigger of  NASA’s chicken soup to find their strength. But the complete absence of organics in the soil made scientists doubtful that life was the cause.  Instead it was thought that some inorganic chemical reaction must be behind the release. Negative results from the other two experiments reinforced their pessimism.

Fast forward to 2008 when the Phoenix lander detected strongly oxidizing perchlorates originating from the interaction of strong ultraviolet light from the Sun with soils on the planet’s surface. Since Mars lacks an ozone layer, perchlorates may not only be common but also responsible for destroying much of Mars’ erstwhile organic bounty. Other scientists have reexamined the Viking LC data in recent years and concluded just the opposite, that the gas release points to life.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggjD3i7efKU
A fun, “period” movie about the Viking Mission to Mars

Seems to me it’s high time we should send a new suite of experiments designed to find life. Then again, maybe we won’t have to. The Mars 202o Mission will cache Martian rocks for later pickup, so we can bring pieces of Mars back to Earth and perform experiments to our heart’s content.

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We’re Finally Sending Ears to Mars

Be patient. We'll soon be hearing from Mars. Left: Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0; right: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We all love that feeling of “being there” when it comes to missions to other planets.  Juno’s arrival at Jupiter, New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto and the daily upload of raw images from the Mars Curiosity rover makes each of us an armchair explorer of alien landscapes. But there’s always been something missing. Something essential in shaping our environment — sound.

NASA recently gave the go-ahead for the Mars 2020 rover that will bristle with a new suite of science instruments including a microphone. Hallelujah! Finally, we’ll get to listen to the sound of the Martian wind, the occasional whirl of dust devils, the crunch of rocks beneath the rover’s wheels and even sharp pops from laser-zapped rocks!

The staff and membership of The Planetary Society have been trying for 20 years to get a working microphone to the Red Planet. One flew aboard NASA’s Mars Polar Lander mission in 1998 but that probe crashed landed when its engine shut down prematurely during the descent phase. In 2008 the Society partnered with Malin Space Science Systems to include its next microphone in the descent imager package on the Mars Phoenix lander in 2008. While that mission was successful,  the imager (along with its microphone) was turned off for fear it might cause an electrical problem with a critical landing system. Mission planners hoped it might be turned on later but whether it was a money issue or fear of shorting out other critical lander instruments, it never happened. Heartbreaking.

One sound souvenir we did get from Phoenix comes to us from the European Space Agency’s Mars which recorded the radio transmissions from the lander as it descended. The signals were then processed into audio within the range of human hearing. Give a listen, there’s a music to it.

The Mars 2020 mission, which is expected to launch in the summer of 2020 and land the following February, will search directly for signs of ancient Martian life as well as identify and cache samples and specimens at several locations on the surface for pick-up by later missions. The microphone would be housed with the rover’s SuperCam, a souped-up version of Curiosity’s ChemCam, which fires a laser at rocks and soils from a distance to analyze the resulting vapors for their elemental composition.

SuperCam will also shoot a laser to vaporize rocks and spectroscopy to tease out their molecular and mineral composition. The microphone would be mounted on a tube sticking out of the electronics box housing SuperCam and used for scientific purposes but I suspect for public outreach as well. One of its more intriguing uses will be to record the ‘snap’ or ‘pop’ when a rock is struck with the laser. Based on the volume of the sound, scientists can estimate the specimen’s mass.

NASA plans to land the 1-ton rover using the same sky crane method that settled Curiosity to the surface in dramatic fashion. While the rover will be busy photographing the entry, descent and landing sequence, the microphone will record the ambient sound. Synched together, this should make for one of the most compelling videos ever!

The microphone will also be used to augment studies of Martian weather (the aforementioned winds and dust devils) and listen to the rover’s creaks, groans and whir of its motors as the car-sized machine rolls across the alternately sandy and rocky surface of Mars. The Planetary Society is collaborating with the SuperCam team to make the most of the microphone. Who knows what else we might hear? Exploding fireball overhead? Static electricity? Rhythmic winds? Blowing sand? Slime-slap of alien pseudopods? OK, probably not the last one, but new instruments often reveal completely unexpected phenomena.

It’s been hard as hell getting a microphone on a space mission. They’ve had to compete with other instruments considered more essential not to mention the precious space the device would take up and the burden of additional mass. Mission planners consider every fraction of a gram when building a space probe because getting it into Earth orbit and blasting it to a planet takes energy. Rockets only hold so much fuel!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLgVu6kVx9w
Your Voice on Mars

You might wonder if Mars’ atmosphere is thick enough to carry sound. The good news is that it is, but unlike Earth’s much denser nitrogen-oxygen mix, Martian air is 100 times thinner and composed of 95% carbon dioxide. If you could snap off your helmet and talk out loud on the Red Planet, your voice would sound deeper and not travel as far. Scientists liken it to having a conversation at 100,000 feet (30,500 meters) above Earth’s surface. Check out the crazy video for a simulation.

Now that you’ve made it to the end of this story, sit back and pump up the volume. We’ll have ears on Mars soon!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9gOQgfPW4Y
Pump Up the Volume by M|A|R|R|S

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ExoMars 2018 Rover Postponed to 2020 Launch

ESA Exomars rover launch has been rescheduled to launch two years later in 2020.  Credit:ESA

Liftoff of the ExoMars 2018 rover mission currently under development jointly by Europe and Russia has just been postponed for two years to 2020, according to an announcement today, May 2, from the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

The delay was forced by a variety of technical and funding issues that ate up the schedule margin to enable a successful outcome.

“Taking into account the delays in European and Russian industrial activities and deliveries of the scientific payload, a launch in 2020 would be the best solution,” ESA explained in a statement today.

The ambitious ExoMars rover is the second of two joint Euro-Russian missions to explore the Red Planet.

The first mission known as ExoMars 2016 was successfully launched last month from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Russian Proton-M rocket on March 14.

The renamed ExoMars 2020 mission involves a European-led rover and a Russian-led surface platform and is also slated to blastoff on an Russian Proton rocket.

Roscosmos and ESA jointly decided to move the launch to the next available Mars launch window in July 2020. The costs associated with the delay are not known.

The delay means that the Euro-Russian rover mission will launch the same year as NASA’s 2020 rover.

The rover is being built by prime contractor Airbus Defense and Space in Stevenage, England.

The descent module and surface science package are provided by Roscosmos with some contributions by ESA.

Recognizing the potential for a delay, ESA and Roscosmos set up a tiger team in late 2015 to assess the best options.

“Russian and European experts made their best efforts to meet the 2018 launch schedule for the mission, and in late 2015, a dedicated ESA-Roscosmos Tiger Team, also including Russian and European industries, initiated an analysis of all possible solutions to recover schedule delays and accommodate schedule contingencies,” said ESA in the statement.

The tiger team reported their results to ESA Director General Johann-Dietrich Woerner and Roscosmos Director General Igor Komarov.

Woerner and Komarov then “jointly decided to move the launch to the next available Mars launch window in July 2020, and tasked their project teams to develop, in cooperation with the industrial contactors, a new baseline schedule aiming towards a 2020 launch. Additional measures will also be taken to maintain close control over the activities on both sides up to launch.”

The ExoMars 2016 interplanetary mission is comprised of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander. The spacecraft are due to arrive at Mars in October 2016.

The goal of TGO is to search for possible signatures of life in the form of trace amounts of atmospheric methane on the Red Planet.

The main purpose of Schiaparelli is to demonstrate key entry, descent, and landing technologies for the follow on 2nd ExoMars mission that will land the first European rover on the Red Planet.

The now planned 2020 ExoMars mission will deliver an advanced rover to the Red Planet’s surface. It is equipped with the first ever deep driller that can collect samples to depths of 2 meters (seven feet) where the environment is shielded from the harsh conditions on the surface – namely the constant bombardment of cosmic radiation and the presence of strong oxidants like perchlorates that can destroy organic molecules.

ExoMars was originally a joint NASA/ESA project.

But thanks to hefty cuts to NASA’s budget by Washington DC politicians, NASA was forced to terminate the agencies involvement after several years of extremely detailed work and withdraw from participation as a full partner in the exciting ExoMars missions.

NASA is still providing the critical MOMA science instrument that will search for organic molecules.

Thereafter Russia agreed to take NASA’s place and provide the much needed funding and rockets for the pair of launches in March 2016 and May 2018.

TGO will also help search for safe landing sites for the ExoMars 2020 lander and serve as the all important data communication relay station sending signals and science from the rover and surface science platform back to Earth.

ExoMars 2016 is Europe’s most advanced mission to Mars and joins Europe’s still operating Mars Express Orbiter (MEX), which arrived back in 2004, as well as a fleet of NASA and Indian probes.

The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander arrive at Mars on October 19, 2016.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Curiosity Celebrates Two Years on Mars Approaching Bedrock of Mountain Climbing Destination

NASA’s most scientifically powerful rover ever dispatched to the Red Planet, Curiosity, is celebrating her 2nd anniversary on Mars since the dramatic touchdown inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012, EDT (Aug. 5, 2012, PDT) while simultaneously approaching a bedrock unit that for the first time is actually part of the humongous mountain she will […]

NASA Announces Science Instruments for Mars 2020 Rover Expedition to the Red Planet

NASA announced the winners of the high stakes science instrument competition to fly aboard the Mars 2020 rover at a briefing held today, Thursday, July 31, at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. The 2020 rover’s instruments goals are to search for signs of organic molecules and past life and help pave the way for […]

NASA Announces Science Instruments for Mars 2020 Rover Expedition to the Red Planet

NASA announced the winners of the high stakes science instrument competition to fly aboard the Mars 2020 rover at a briefing held today, Thursday, July 31, at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. The 2020 rover’s instruments goals are to search for signs of organic molecules and past life and help pave the way for […]